This expression used by Alain de Botton in his How Proust Can Change Your Life (pg 42) stood out to me. He uses it in relation to the morning news, reflecting on how reporting inevitably strips away from the reality of what is reported on. This is an example of a broader tendency for human experience to “be stripped of the more obvious signposts by which we guide ourselves when ascribing importance”. To use the language of Andrew Sayer, factual reporting strips away what matters to people about what is being reported on. The distillation involved in reporting on the facts of a case unavoidably subtract how those state of affairs move people and motivate them, leaving us with an arid picture susceptible to wide circulation when so many other accounts compete for our attention. The abbreviation of human experience is a practical necessity which detracts from our understanding of others and the world around us, even as it contributes to our knowledge of those conditions.

It might be argued that social media highlights human experience in a new way, though I would suggest it is demotic in the sense of reality television rather than democratic in the sense of participatory. It foregrounds human experience through templates and incentivised interaction, increasing the flow of human experience in public consciousness but at the cost of its integrity. Abbreviation is intensified rather than attenuated, with so many shards of experience flying around that radically truncating our attention is the only way to cope. What gets through is what is spectacular, jarring or enraging. It is not a return to human experience but its last gasp, with meaning and mattering mangled by the machinery of abbreviation. Under these conditions, what de Botton calls the finger placing ability becomes important:

The value of a novel is not limited to its depiction of emotions and people akin to those in our own life, it stretches to an ability to describe these far better than we would have been able, to put a finger on perceptions that we recognise as our own, yet could not have formulated on our own.  (pg 28)

I’ve always been fascinated by these depths. The struggle within us to articulate something and the relief that comes when we find a way to say it. Often though we change in the process of saying it, as we suddenly recognise a state of affairs within us by virtue of being able to express it. The opposite of what de Botton calls abbreviation is what Charles Taylor calls articulation. Resources we can draw on in articulation are invaluable in an age of radical abbreviation, helping us become “newly attuned to pick up certain objects floating through consciousness” such that we are “drawn to the shades of the sky, to the changeability of a face, to the hypocrisy of a friend or to a submerged sadness about a situation which we had previously not even known we could feel sad about” (pg 29). Articulacy we develop expands outwards, sensitising us to the abbreviation we encounter around us and leaving us more adept at recovering the reality subsumed by its thin expression. This is not a call for slowness, as much as for elaboration. There’s a value in being long winded, even if it’s unlikely to get you read.

A51kBFC6SgoL._SX399_BO1,204,203,200_n extract from Social Media for Academics

In recent years we’ve seen the notion of ‘internet addiction’ enter the popular consciousness. As a self-description it’s sometimes invoked facetiously, some­times desperately and occasionally in a way which combines the two. It would be silly for me to try and take a stance on such a complex subject here. So I’ll restrict myself to suggesting that we should be cautious about this term given a wider context in which the medicalisation of everyday life is rapidly intensifying. Having got that out of the way, let’s turn to an experience which will be familiar to most: finding yourself lost in a repetitive cycle of clicking from web page to web page, checking your e-mail every couple of minutes or pas­sively skimming through a Twitter feed while paying little attention to what you’re reading in it. These are those times when what social media companies describe as ‘thumb stopping’ (ceasing your endless scroll in order to focus on something you’ve chosen as worthy of attention) becomes unlikely and you just keep on skimming in an increasingly detached way.

The popular comedy Portlandia describes this as a ‘technology loop’ – being caught in a frenzied cycle of overstimulation, unable to drag oneself away from the internet and the torrent of interesting things to do, read and watch which it’s impos­sible for any one person to keep up with. The political theorist Jodi Dean in Blog Theory describes this as getting ‘stuck doing the same thing over and over again because this doing produces enjoyment. Post. Post. Post. Click. Click. Click’. It’s not neces­sary to accept the psychoanalytic ideas underpinning Dean’s account to recognise the experience she describes. I found myself doing it on Facebook a few minutes ago before a track change on the music I have playing in the background jolted me back into attention and reminded me that I’m supposed to be writing a chapter about sustaining your focus in an age of social media. The more general problem is a distractedness produced by digital technology in an age of informational abun­dance. The issue here is not only the multiplication of distractions, it’s also the sheer scale of what we’re missing out on and our growing awareness of all the other things we could and perhaps should be doing.

The most obvious way to prevent this is simply to recognise that you’re doing it. Putting a name to the experience makes it easy to identify what you’re doing and so help you drag yourself out of an impending technology loop. If you find yourself drifting into such a state repeatedly, even as you pull yourself out each time, perhaps it’s worth taking a break or at least shifting to a different activity? The website www.donothingfor2minutes.com offers a helpful antidote to the frenzied hyperactivity which characterises the technology loop. There are also more preventative means which can be taken: using tools like Anti-Social and Freedom or switching off the WiFi if you’re having this problem at home (it’s presumably not feasible to do this at a coffee shop or in an office but I must admit I’ve never tried). More indirectly, it can help to minimise distractions by turning off pop-up notifications (pop up e-mail alerts are effectively designed to fracture your focus) and maybe isolating your social media use to another device such as writing on your laptop and only using Twitter on your smart phone. Alex Pang’s Distraction Addiction offers a really thorough discussion of the range of tools available for these purposes, as well as a philosophy of ‘contemplative computing’ in terms of which we can understand their utility.

All these suggestions are basically preventative though. This problem can be tackled in a different way by thinking about how you approach your work. Do you have a strategy for managing your time and attention? One such strategy can be seen in the Pomodoro Technique, a popular working method which is predi­cated on the understanding that ‘taking short, scheduled breaks while working eliminates the “running on fumes” feeling you get when you’ve pushed yourself too hard’. It involves working on a larger task through small chunks of intense work punctuated by repeated breaks: you work intensively for a set period of time, take a break and then do another chunk of work. Any extraneous tasks, whether connected to your present focus or something else entirely, should be recorded on a piece of paper before you immediately return to the task at hand. Its developer Francesco Cirillo suggests 25 minute-long sessions of work followed by 5 minute-long breaks.

However these are optional really, as is the tomato-shaped timer which he sells via his website (though I must admit writing this has left me tempted to finally buy one of these). There are many apps which can do the same thing and which have the advantage of recording your results in a way that can be useful for measuring your own productivity as well as filling out timesheets if necessary. The idea of this is to minimise task interruption and to ensure frequent breaks  to prevent the depletion of attentional energy. This sounds deceptively easy but it’s remarkable how easy it is to get distracted in the space of 25 minutes.

Committing to working for a specific period of time helps heighten your aware­ness of all the distraction events which intervene and can so chronically drag your attention away from the task at hand: committing to not checking your e-mails for 25 minutes helps you notice those often imperceptible whims arising – ‘I’ll just check my e-mails quickly and see if I’ve got a response from earlier’. This point holds for other forms of distraction as well but it would be a mistake to overlook e-mail given the concerns of this chapter. We don’t tend to think of e-mail as social media. It’s certainly not an example of what used to be called web 2.0 before that term largely gave way to that of social media. But in the broader sense addressed in this book of media that are social then e-mail surely falls into this category. It’s also a pervasive source of stress and concern across the academy, as Ros Gill points out in her insightful account of the ‘hidden injuries’ of the contem­porary academy:

‘Addiction’ metaphors suffuse academics’ talk of their relationship to e-mail, even as they report such high levels of anxiety that they feel they have to check e-mail first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and in which time away (on sick leave, on holiday) generates fears of what might be lurking in the inbox when they return. Again, inventive ‘strategies’ abound for keeping such anxiety at bay e.g. put­ting on your ‘out of office’ reply when you are actually in the office.

However, it is not only the always-on culture of e-mails that has led to the marked intensification of our workloads and the almost constant experience of high levels of stress. In fact it is paradoxical, given how much time we spend on it, that e-mail is mostly experienced as what stops us getting on with our ‘real’ work.

I’ve tried to clear my inbox on a daily basis simply because it largely removes the stress from the process. I recognise this won’t be possible for everyone but I’d also maintain it’s nowhere near as unfeasible for many people as might first seem to be the case. The time spent avoiding e-mail and being stressed out by e-mail is time that could be spent getting it out of the way in one go. I don’t recall it ever taking me more than an hour to entirely clear my inbox, even if this can be quite dispiriting when it immediately leads to a rapid expansion of my to-do list. It works most effectively when I do e-mail first thing in the morning. Replies are the exception rather than the rule before 8am,

whereas trying to clear my inbox in the middle of day can produce despair as replies and new e-mails hurtle into my inbox faster than I can clear the back­log. The description of the ‘stupid e-mail ritual’ offered by the protagonist of Cory Doctorow’s novel Homeland is quite apt: ‘Download download download. Spam spam spam. Delete delete delete’. I find it hard to read about things like e-mail apnoea – breath-holding or shallow breathing associated with checking e-mail – without wondering about the psychosocial costs of our communications system. The stress caused by e-mail is so widely recognised as to make discussion of it a cliché. But it’s something which crops up time and time again, at least if you make a habit of reading academics blogging about academic life.

One final useful suggestion comes from the social media scholar danah boyd (2011) who describes how she takes an occasional e-mail sabbatical in order to cope with its intrinsically Sisyphean nature. While many people can step back from social media (though not everyone! – see the Potential Pitfalls box above), it’s far more difficult to do this with e-mail. This is getting worse because, as Pat Thompson suggests, the e-mail auto-responder is becoming pretty useless in the contemporary academy. Being ‘out of office’ while retaining internet access means continuing to respond to e-mails or watching them build up in a way which quickly undermines any of the potential benefits of ‘disconnection’. There are other strategies it’s possible to adopt: I recently bought a pay-as-you-go phone for when I really want to get away from the internet, and have sometimes deleted the mail settings on my iPhone when I want to disconnect but nonethe­less retain the capacity to consult Google Maps when, as so often happens, I get lost on my way somewhere.

From Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet by Finn Brunton pg 197. The thesis of this impressive book is that what we call ‘spam’ is fundamentally a deliberate and disenguous violation of salience: it’s because of the vast array of new instances of salience being opened up, in which we search for and have a reasonable expectation of locating relevant material, each one providing an opportunity for us to attend to something in this new digitalised archive.

Spam persists and diversifies because we are living through a major, complex transition in the constitution and management of our own attention, a transition moving faster than our governance, our metaphors, and our software can keep up with. Spammers—the disbarred lawyers, impoverished con artists, would-be pornographers, credit card thieves, and malware coders—are the avant-garde, the wildcatting exploiters of this transition. They find domains where salience is being generated, whether in a comment thread, a search engine result, a social media platform, or your email inbox, and move to commandeer it. They are the crudest and most abject form of this capture, from students pranking each other with the words of a Monty Python sketch to global botnets producing more email than everyone else on earth, every single day. In their crude way, they show the rest of the online population the network’s new capabilities, the new forms of attention and community experience, which we have not yet fully understood.

As he puts it on pg 199: “Spam is the use of information technology infrastructure to exploit existing aggregations of human attention.”

This is a slightly crude attempt to thematise something which I’ve been struggling to express for a while: has there been an acceleration of the rate at which bullshit emerges in the digital economy? Here’s an example of what I have in mind. I’ve been looking through Amazon for business books about the newer social media and sharing economy companies for part of my new project. This is what I find when searching for Instagram in the books section of Amazon:

1

If you can’t read the screenshot closely enough, trust me when I say they look crap. What appear to be a uniformly substitutable array of questionably written books united by the underlying motif of how to get rich from Instagram. I’ve found something similar for almost every search I’ve undertaken in the last half hour.

The presence of many crap books on Amazon might not be a revelation. But what interests me is the motivations of those writing them. The buzz around a new platform presents an opportunity to establish oneself as a guide to that platform. But the nature of this buzz means awareness of that opportunity is almost as pervasive as awareness of the platform itself. The barriers to entry are minimal and the rewards appear to be great, particularly given the tendency of those who have ‘made it’ to “publicize successful outliers to propagate the illusion”. Furthermore, there’s a broader acceleration of the rate at which people seize on opportunities against a structural background of destructured careers and a cultural background of entrepreneurial individualism.

The result: we find ourselves drowning in an ever expanding pool of bullshit. The cognitive costs entailed by sorting the wheat from the chaff become ever more onerous, our reliance upon human and algorithmic intermediaries tends to increase as a result, making a small but meaningful contribution to the upwards spiral of individual distraction and collective fragmentation that I’m increasingly convinced is perhaps the defining characteristic of digital capitalism.

 

I’ve just ordered this print which I’ve been obsessed by since Su Oman showed it to me. Leaving aside the brain as computer metaphor, which I object to theoretically and yet find myself lapsing into using in everyday life, I like it because it so neatly conveys what I see as the problem of attention in digital capitalism. There’s so much to attend to, we’re so likely to know about things that we feel enthusiasm for and it’s so easy just to keep opening another tab on the browser. Until you’ve got 50 tabs open and it’s impossible to properly attend to any of them.

This isn’t a new idea by any means but in my current work I’m trying to distinguish between different elements which too often get run together concerning the variety of things for us to read, watch, play or otherwise engage with:

  1. the objective extent of that variety
  2. our awareness of that variety
  3. our access to that variety

Digitalization generates change in all three dimensions. I think it’s useful to distinguish between them. Here are some quick ideas, relating to the three dimensions above, which I’ll write up more fully at a later point in time:

  1. the diffusion of technical facilities for cultural production, the declining skill demands necessary for cultural production
  2. the growth of new intermediaries who help filter the objective extent of cultural variety, various forms of collective filtering, various forms of algorithmic filtering, the challenge of ‘being heard above the din’ (as Dave Beer put it)
  3. new gate keepers facilitating access to previously unimaginable libraries of content, conflicts between gatekeepers which leave content dispersed between different libraries, piracy of all forms, digital rights management and backlashes against it, improved connectivity of devices, diffusion of increasingly sophisticated portable devices