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.

I’ve long been drawn to accounts of the everyday lives of politicians. This isn’t so much a matter of biographical curiosity, as much as a preoccupation with temporality. It is not that the temporal character of our lives moulds us but rather that the things which do are always inflected through temporality.

I’m convinced you can learn a lot about why someone is the way that they are through understanding how time operates in their life. There’s a really rich description of the disjointed temporality encountered by senior American politicians in Joe Klein’s novel Primary Colours, a fictionalised account of Bill Clinton’s run for president in 1992. From pg 11:

Politicians work—they do their public work, that is—when civilians don’t: mealtimes, evenings, weekends. The rest of the time, down time, is spent indoors, in hotel suites, worrying the phones, dialing for dollars, fighting over the next moves, living outside time; there are no weekdays or weekends; there is sleep but not much rest. Sometimes, and always at the oddest hours, you may break free: an afternoon movie, a midnight dinner. And there are those other, fleeting moments when your mind drifts from him, from the podium, and you fix on the father and son tossing a ball out past the back of the crowd, out in the park, and you suddenly realize, Hey, it’s Saturday; or you glance out a hotel window and spot an elderly couple walking hand in hand, still alive in each other’s mind (as opposed to merely sharing space, waiting it out). The campaign—with all its talk of destiny, crisis and mission—falls away and you remember: Other people just have lives. Their normality can seem a reproach. It hurts your eyes, like walking out of a matinee into bright sunlight. Then it passes. He screws up a line, it’s Q& A time, it’s time to move.

What is it like to live like this? How would it shape you if large swathes of your life are lived in this way? How does it influence your sense of what is normal and what is not? It’s a fictionalised account, produced by a political journalist but imputing experiences on the basis of second hand experience, leaving it accuracy a rather ambiguous matter. But it such a rich description that it’s interesting to reflect on the significance of these experiences, if accurate.

From the Third Treatise: What Do Ascetic Ideals Means of On The Genealogy of Morality:

Much more frequent than this sort of hypnotic general suppression of sensitivity, of susceptibility to pain – which presupposes even rarer forces, above all courage, contempt of opinions, “intellectual stoicism” – is the attempt at a different kind of training against conditions of depression, one that is in any case easier: mechanical activity. That this relieves a suffering existence to a not inconsiderable degree is beyond all doubt: today this fact is called, somewhat dishonestly, “the blessing of work.” The relief consists in this: that the interest of the sufferer is thoroughly diverted from the suffering – that is continually doing and yet again only doing that enters into consciousness and, consequently, that little room remains in it for suffering: for it is narrow, this chamber of human consciousness! Mechanical activity and that which belongs to it – like absolute regularity, punctual unreflected obedience, one’s way of life set once and for all, the filling up of time, a certain permission for, indeed discipline in “impersonality,” in self-forgetfulness, in “incur Sui”-: how thoroughly, how subtly the ascetic protest knew how to use these in the battle with pain.

Today we see mechanical activity pursued with even greater vigour, heavily individualised though no less regimented. This is exactly what I’ve been trying to express in the last few years in my writing on cognitive triage: how we embrace the narrowness of the cognitive chamber, losing ourselves in movement in order to blot out the existential challenges which otherwise impinge involuntary upon our consciousness.

(Translated by Maudemarie Clark and Alan Seensen in a 1998 Hackett Publishing edition)

I began a lifestyle experiment 45 days ago, cutting out alcohol from my life to see what happened. It’s been much more enjoyable than I thought it would be and here’s a few things I’ve realised:

  • Higher education runs on booze. It’s remarkable how many events involve free alcohol and how much socialising after other events involves alcohol. It’s much easier than I thought it would be to opt out but it’s hard not to feel left out sometimes.
  • Alcohol dims my awareness of my own energy levels. I’ve been struck when travelling during this time how physically and mentally tired I am by the evening. It was a jarring experience to go to bed in Prague at 10pm and wake up refreshed the next day without an alarm clock, as opposed to waking up with a hangover and feeling awful.
  • I’m newly acquainted with my own introversion, particularly how my energy depletes if I don’t get time to myself (preferably at home) during a day. This is particularly a problem when I travel, with this occasionally making up as much as half of my time. I find it exhausting to socialise with people after doing stuff with them all day and I’m starting to feel ok with that because if I’m still like this at 32, it’s probably not going to change.
  • I was aware going to the pub could function as stress-relief for me. I’d spend an evening drinking with friends and feel better about everything the next day. But I hadn’t realised how this stopped me dwelling on the nature of the stress, providing an outlet without addressing the underlying problem. It’s not so much that I think I over work, as much that I’ve failed to organise my working life in a way that’s kind to myself and that’s something I’m in the process of changing.
  • I often drink out of habit. I’ve found it remarkable how rarely I’ve actually wanted to drink in the last 45 days. Once was while stuck in an airport, once was with a friend who was visiting and once after doing a successful workshop on a sunny day. The rest of the time I’ve simply wanted to do something nice and refraining from alcohol has helped me disentangle how it can have a self-care component but when it’s habitual it probably won’t.
  • My energy levels as a whole have increased remarkably, probably because I sleep much better than I did previously. I want to live a full life and whatever absence refraining from alcohol entails (though it’s much less than I imagined) is counterbalanced by everything else in my slightly crammed life working much better than it did previously.

I’m not going to refrain from drinking forever. I like craft beer far too much for that to be feasible. But I can easily imagine myself doing this for a long time and only occasionally drinking, focusing on really special beer in a way that fully appreciates it. For the time being, I’m going to persist and see what happens. The very fact of committing to refraining from something that had been such a habitual part of my life has created a new orientation within me, shedding light on other things that were habitual and opaque beyond alcohol itself.

I’ve been curious for a while about the Bullet Journal system. As an obsessive practitioner of Getting Things Done, I can’t see myself starting a Bullet Journal but its framing as ‘the analogue system for a digital age’ has intrigued me since I first encountered it. The video below provides an overview of how to keep a bullet journal:

The basic ontology of a bullet journal incorporates tasks, events and notes. These are incorporated into an organisational structure built around four core modules: index, future log, monthly log and the daily log. The bullet journal enables you to “track the past, organise the present and plan for the future” by providing a framework through which future plans become present commitments and past actions. If I understand correctly, it’s basically a funnel through which your plans over a six-month window get cashed out as monthly and daily priorities. The importance accorded to reflection ensures that commitments can be dropped along the way. It is a “customizable and forgiving” system for self-organisation, built around a hybrid journal which is a combination of “to-do list, sketchbook, notebook, and diary”.

I find it hard not to wonder if some of the appeal rests on paper-fetishism. This certainly plays a role in how Bullet Journal markets itself. For instance this video frames notebooks as a “creative playground” through which we “breath life into ideas”:

I can see the appeal of having an artefact like this. Externalising your commitments into an application like Omnifocus can be a hugely effective way to organise your time, once it has become a habitual process. It can be enormously practical as well, if you’re liable to lose your bullet journal, write indecipherably or otherwise fail to exercise the physical care in relation to an artefact which a system like Bullet Journal requires. But you can’t hold your Omnifocus. You can’t flick through it. Much of this lack is aesthetic. Reliance on a digital system precludes certain experiences which an analogue system facilitates.

I wonder if there are also practical losses as well. Could some modes of reflection be foreclosed by the insubstantiality of the system? Getting Things Done as a system relies on the series: “a number of events, objects, or people of a similar or related kind coming one after another”It reduces all our projects to the same basic ontology: an interlinked series of actionable steps through which we cumulatively bring about a substantial outcome. This reduction is what makes it so powerful. The value of Omnifocus lies in it giving us powerful tools through which to calibrate this reduction. But it also carries the risk of eviscerating the lived meaning of these projects, particularly when enacted through a digital system. This problem is inherent to the moral psychology of the to-do list:

This is the mentality that cognitive triage generates: things are conceived as obstacles to be eliminated rather than activities to be enjoyed. As the list gets bigger, it becomes harder to see the individual ‘to do’ items as activities in their own right. They are reduced to uniform list items and nothing more. Things you enjoy and things you despise are given equal weight. The logic of the to-do list is one of commensurability and this is the problem with it. The process of triaging combined with the logic of the to-do list can lead to an evisceration of value: the potential goods internal to activities, those experiences of value that can only be found through doing, get obliterated by the need to cross items off a list.

https://markcarrigan.net/2015/01/29/productivity-culture-cognitive-triage-and-the-pseudo-commensurability-of-the-to-do-list/

Might Bullet Journals help preserve the relational richness of our projects, opening out powerful modes of engaging with them while closing down the conveniences which digital systems afford? I’d be curious to hear what others think. Particularly anyone who has used Omnifocus and/or GTD before moving to a Bullet JournalMy hunch is there’s a basic trade-off here between convenience and reflection. It’s easy to slip into using Omnifocus/GTD in an unreflective way but the brute physicality of the Bullet Journal renders that largely impossible. Many might stop using their notebook as a Bullet Journal but if you stick to the practice itself, it more or less ensures you use it in a reflective way.

I just returned from a Remembrance Day service, pondering the relationship between acceleration and the profane after finding the array of people walking past and through the service deeply irritating. It occurred to me that what marks out such a space as sacred, distinguished from the normal flow on everyday life, rests as much on deceleration as it does on silence. In fact the former could be seen as the precondition for the latter, in so far as that it’s hard to avoid making a noise unless you’re standing still. 

There was a constant stream of activity around the service: people walking past, the noise of bikes and cameras clicking as photographers roamed. People were silent during the formal silence but the movement didn’t cease. What happens to our aspiration to the sacred under such circumstances? It becomes harder to sustain but its achievement is all the more powerful for this reason. To actually have a crowd of people stop moving, stand still and focus upon a shared object of attention becomes a moving experience in its own right because there is little even approximating it in everyday life.
This might seem like a niche concern, a peculiarly long-winded way of complaining about the fact of people’s behaviour at a remembrance service. I nonetheless believe it highlights a more diffuse phenomenon, in which the harmonisation of attention is becoming decreasingly possible. This isn’t just a matter of movement or its absence, a proliferation of noise or a respectful silence. Take myself as an example: I’m complaining about the lack of attentiveness shown by others but I found myself writing this blog post in my head during the service. There are so many reasons to turn away from shared experiences, as the decreasing synchronisation of our work and lives (as well as the digital machinery of distraction through which this desynchronisation comes to characterise every facet of our existence) means the traditional pool of collective objects of attention seems to be in terminal decline.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the end of collectivity or even of collective attention. The role of mediation here is interesting e.g. television and Twitter combining to produce intense forms of mediated collective attention. If we accept that collective attention can be powerful even if synchronised then binge-watched television shows which reach the status of ‘cultural phenomenon’ represent an interesting case study. Nonetheless, we see an important and challenging transformation when collective attention comes to depend upon technologies of mediation for its very possibility. I suspect we begin to lose something quite profound, as collective affectivity dependent on real co-ordination of psycho-physical attention in time and space begins to fade away into an (imagined) past. The extent to which this is happening can certainly be overstated: the examples that have proved most transformative in my own experience illustrate this (e.g. key games in live football, the best live music, some protests). But even these are partial experiences, collective crescendos against a backdrop of individualisation, rather than defining features of the experience. The most moving examples also occurred when I was younger, long before any gig was filled with people constantly focused on filming the event using their phone. The only recent example I can think of was the memorial after the Manchester attacks this year, the effect of which upon me had been opaque until I found myself bursting into tears after a few minutes of standing with others in St Andrew’s Square. 

I’m worried that forms of collectivity like this, deeply precious but subtle parts of our lives, increasingly find themselves imperilled by social acceleration and that individualised enforcement of ‘proper’ comportment is liable to make the problem worse rather than better.

Yesterday morning I bought a copy of Hilary Clinton’s new book What Happened and was surprised to find myself gripped by it. I’d expected a turgid and unlikeable text which I’d skim through in order to supplement my understanding of the last Presidential election with the authorised account of the losing candidate. To my surprise, I’m enjoying the book and finding Clinton far more likeable than I expected. In fact, I’d almost go as far as to say I’m fascinated by it, for reasons which have nothing to do with the election.

It’s a disarmingly honest book which is doing multiple things, including protecting her reputation after last year’s debacle. However, I find it hard not to believe her claim that writing the book was cathartic. It charts the end of two defining features of her life over decades: buffering and triaging. The former is Jon Stewart’s term for what you “could see happening in the milliseconds between when Clinton was asked a question and when she answered; the moments when she played out the angles, envisioned the ways her words could be twisted, and came up with a response devoid of danger but suffused with caution”. As she points out on loc 1630-1651, criticism of her for this is manifestly gendered:

People say I’m guarded, and they have a point. I think before I speak. I don’t just blurt out whatever comes to mind. It’s a combination of my natural inclination, plus my training as a lawyer, plus decades in the public eye where every word I say is scrutinized. But why is this a bad thing? Don’t we want our Senators and Secretaries of State—and especially our Presidents—to speak thoughtfully, to respect the impact of our words? President Obama is just as controlled as I am, maybe even more so. He speaks with a great deal of care; takes his time, weighs his words. This is generally and correctly taken as evidence of his intellectual heft and rigor. He’s a serious person talking about serious things. So am I. And yet, for me, it’s often experienced as a negative.

What for her is seen as disingenuity or inauthenticity is in Obama coded as, at worst, aloofness. To spend one’s life “keeping a tight hold on what I say and how I react to things” sounds exhausting and the “relief” she writes of having always found with “friends with whom I can be vulnerable and unedited” might now become a more general feature of a life which is in the process of slowing down and opening up. She writes on loc 398 of the sudden experience of freedom which the electoral defeat had granted her:

So when a friend said she was sending a box full of her favorite books . . . and another said he was coming up for the weekend even if it was just to take a walk together . . . and another said she was taking me to see a play whether I wanted to go or not . . . I didn’t protest or argue. For the first time in years, I didn’t have to consult a complicated schedule. I could just say “Yes!” without a second thought.

I read this as the end of triaging. This was most intense during a campaign in which an endless sequence of events was coupled with back-to-back radio interviews while travelling. But it was a feature of her life more broadly, in which the constant support of an extensive staff extended her capacity to fill her life with commitments, appointments and obligations. I found it fascinating to read these, admittedly still carefully polished, descriptions of her experience of the time (and of time) after the election. It’s only much later in the book that you start to realise that even then she wasn’t alone, being surrounded by all manner of staff even during what she experiences as an unprecedented withdrawal from the world.

If we read her book in this way, against the backdrop of her transformed life, it shines as a biographically framed account of a political creed. This book represents a form of life, in a manner we rarely see with senior politicians. It presents the worldview of a ‘moderniser’, one of the architects of a ‘centre-left’ now slipping into history, grounded in her own orientation to the world and understanding of her own life. This centrism was always ideological, albeit a strange ideology of moderation and empiricism (revealed as an ideology by its chronic failure to adapt to a world that has demonstrably changed on an empirical level). This book illustrates how centrism, as with all ideologies, organises everyday experience in a way that connects considered positions with situated affectivity. As can be seen in Clinton’s account of centrism as the emotional labour of politics. From loc 1831-1849:

Dramatic spiritual conversions aside, emotional labor isn’t particularly thrilling as far as the political media or some of the electorate is concerned. I’ve been dinged for being too interested in the details of policy (boring!), too practical (not inspiring!), too willing to compromise (sellout!), too focused on smaller, achievable steps rather than sweeping changes that have little to no chance of ever coming true (establishment candidate!). But just as a household falls apart without emotional labor, so does politics grind to a halt if no one is actually listening to one another or reading the briefings or making plans that have a chance of working. I guess that might be considered boring. I don’t find it boring, but you might. But here’s the thing: someone has to do it. In my experience, a lot of the time, it’s women. A lot of the time, it’s dismissed as not that important. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

This might all be mistaken. The book might be a careful part of a rebranding exercise, seeking to rectify the Clinton brand in order that the dynasty might continue when Chelsea runs for office. But if we accept that politicians are people, we confront micro-social questions about their lives and biographies which I’ve always found fascinating (not least of all because the nature of politics leaves politicians disinclined to help us answer them). I’m finding this book oddly fascinating and I now feel much more affection for Hilary Clinton than I did a few days ago.

Edited to add: I wrote this when half way through the book. The second half of the book is much less likeable and leaves me much less sympathetic to Clinton. It’s still a surprisingly interesting read though. 

From Counterculture to Cyberculture, by Fred Turner, presents the fascinating history through which avowed cultural radicals of the 1960s came to generate the present day dogmas of working culture under digital capitalism. In the last week, I’ve written about this in terms of the digital nomad and the digital hipster. These cultural forms are, as Turner puts it on loc 3846, “libertarian nostrums” which “can transform a series of personal losses-of time with family and neighbors, of connection to one’s body and one’s community-into a soothing narrative with which they can rationalize the limits of their own choices”.

What in reality is “every bit as thorough an integration of the individual into the economic machine as the one threatened by the military-industrial-academic bureaucracy forty years earlier” (loc 3838) is rationalised as a mode of living freely, living passionately and living openly. One congratulates oneself for resisting integration into the cold, mechanical life-denying system while in reality being integrated into that system in a manner which is, arguably, more comprehensive.

He makes a crucial point on loc 3838-3846 about this nomadic mode of integration. This integration is comprehensive in its scope, with ‘personal life’ constantly under threat from ‘working life’ in a way which was not the case with the careful balance of the bourgeois 9-5. Every facet of life risks being subsumed under one’s (passionate) work. But this is accentuated by the tendency of work to squeeze out what Archer and Donati call relational goods. The form of life of the digital nomad too often precludes the mundanity of everyday involvements which generate relational goods, bonds with others that produce sources of value independent of those of organisations and capital. There is not a necessary feature of freelance labour, as much as it a certain self-articulation and mode of accounting for this condition of labour: the (relative) temporal autonomy which many enjoy could facilitate a very different relationship to the social order. From loc 3838-3846:

It may in fact result in every bit as thorough an integration of the individual into the economic machine chine as the one threatened by the military-industrial-academic bureaucracy forty years earlier. Furthermore, it may cut individual workers off from participating in local cal communities that might otherwise mitigate these effects. To stay employed, Ullman and workers like her must move from node to node within the network of sites where computers and software are manufactured and used, and in order to pick up leads for new work, they must stay in touch with one another. As a result, programmers and others often find themselves selves living in a social and physical landscape populated principally by people like themselves. To succeed within that landscape, they must often turn their attention away from another, parallel landscape: the landscape of local, material things, of town boards and PTA meetings, of embodied participation ticipation in civic life. They must declare and maintain an allegiance to their own professional network, to its sites and technologies. And they must carry with them a handful of rules that Ullman trumpets with more than a little sarcasm: `Just live by your wits and expect everyone else to do the same. Carry no dead wood. Live free or die. Yeah, surely, you can only rely on yourself.”

The reality underlying the ideals of the digital nomad and the digital hipster is the digital monad. If we treat these ideals too seriously, working life under digital capitalism eats away at our independent sources of esteem and value, leaving us with no locus of fulfilment other than work. The more we invest ourselves in working life, the harder it becomes to imagine a life which is not centred around work.

I spent the second half of this week thinking about the ideal of the digital nomad, he who takes advantage of the affordances of digital media to live a life of constant movement, working with a laptop from a different place each day. We can see this expressed in extreme form in contemporary lifestyle minimalism, defined by a competitive escalation in the number of accoutrements one can dispense with while remaining functional. However it has also percolated into the broader culture, coming to constitute existential common sense amongst great swathes of freelancers and cultural labourers.

This was a mode of existence glamorised in the coverage of early digital gurus within magazines like Wired. But it built on a cultural impulse which predated these institutional entrepreneurs, something which Fred Turner locates within the counter-culture: the amorphous and apolitical cultural movement often conflated with the action-orientated new left. However this in turn has broader roots than the commune dwellers who are the focus of Turner’s study. Thomas Frank quotes Norman Mailer’s early expression of this moral source on loc 381 of his Conquest of Cool:

“The only life-giving answer” to the deathly drag of American civilization, Mailer wrote, was to tear oneself from the security of physical and spiritual certainty, to live for immediate pleasures rather than the postponement of gratification associated with the “work ethic,” “to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey with the rebellious imperatives of the self.” The antithesis to the man in the gray flannel suit was a figure Mailer called the Hipster, an “American existentialist” whose tastes for jazz, sex, drugs, and the slang and mores of black society constituted the best means of resisting the encroachments of Cold War oppression.

Assuming we accept this cultural genealogy, we confront an apparent paradox that a refusal of the work ethic can come to be such a crucial component of  a contemporary culture of over-work. As Turner puts it on loc 3838 of his study, it leads to “every bit as thorough an integration of the individual into the economic machine as the one threatened by the military-industrial-academic bureaucracy forty years earlier”. 

My suggestion is that this hinges on the locus of fulfilment for Mailer’s hipster moving from life to work. As Frank summarises on loc 397 of the same text:

Unlike the “over-civilized man” with his diligent piling of the accoutrements of respectability, the hipster lives with a “burning consciousness of the present,” exists for ever-more-intense sensation, for immediate gratification, for “an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it.” 

The accelerated conditons of intensified labour for creative workers, as working life is constituted through their rapid movement through a heterogenous array of projects with an equally varied range of collaborators, feeds this “burning consciousness of the present” in a way that even the most excitingly hedonistic life would fail to do. There is no rhythm or routine, only an endless succession of experiences, continually challenge one to self-transcend. To the digital hipster, personal  life has become the theatre of stultifying conformity while working life promises liberation from it.

In From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner analyses how digital technology came to be seen as capable of liberating the individual, freeing them from the shackles of petty attachments to organisations and places. This is a complex story but it’s one in which cultural entrepreneurs figure prominently, carving out modes of living which later percolated through the emerging cyberculture as ideals to be imitated. One early such figure was Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, described on loc 2677:

As LSD and a beat-up school bus had once freed Kesey to roam the American landscape with a tribe of friends, so digital technologies now allowed Negroponte to turn work into play. “Some of us enjoy a privileged existence where our work life and our leisure life are almost synonymous,” he told Brand. “More and more people I think can move into that position with the coming of truly intimate technology.

The personal charisma of a figure like Negroponte plays an important part in their coming to serve as an exemplar, embodying a desirable form of life which invites explanation in terms of emerging notions of digitally-driven social change and in turn contributes to these changes through cultural elaboration. From loc 2685:

If the Lab demonstrated the way a “wired” world might look, then Negroponte was the image of the social possibilities such a world might offer. Mobile, wealthy, handsome, some, completely networked in both the technological and the political sense, Negroponte was a new kind of man. As an echo of Marshall McLuhan, though, he was also the reincarnation of an earlier generation of hero. Like the Media Lab he headed, Negroponte was the living bridge between the legacy of cybernetics and the legacy of countercultural experimentation.

George Gilder was another figure who was glamorised in this way. As Turner observes on loc 3353, his hectic schedule was held up as embodying a liberated life. His peripatetic working patterns were exciting and profitable:

Much as other Wired writers had celebrated brated the members of the Electronic Frontier Foundation or the Global Business Network for their social connections, Bronson dwelled at length on Gilder’s hectic schedule of appearances, his migrations from tech company to tech company, and his twenty-thousand-dollar speaking fees. Gilder appeared peared to be a pattern of information, shuttling from node to node along a web of elite institutions. In case the reader missed the point, Bronson depicted picted Gilder literally speaking in the machine language of zeros and ones.

As Turner puts it on loc 3366, “Wired had offered the freelance lance lifestyle of a high-profile consultant as a model of the independent lifestyle ostensibly becoming available to the digital generation as a whole“. This equivocation is an important one, seemingly at least a little bit dishonest when we consider how aware Wired were of the particular demographic they were pursuing. From loc 3233-3241:

In a 1992 business plan, Rossetto and Metcalfe had described their target audience to potential investors as “Digital Visionaries.”.” With annual incomes averaging $75,000 a year, this group represented “The top ten percent of creators, managers, and professionals in the computer puter industries, business, design, entertainment, the media and education.” In the coming years, Wired reached this group with extraordinary success. Less than three years after the first issue appeared, for instance, when Wired was selling 300,000 copies a month, its readers were 87.9 percent male, 37 years old on average, with an average household income of more than $122,000 per year. In a reader survey, more than 90 percent of subscribers scribers identified themselves as either “Professional/Managerial” or “Top Management.”

The idiots so wonderfully satirised in Nathan Barley are the children of these visionaries, sufficiently immersed in the emergent culture that any sense of transition has been lost. But the ideal of the ‘digital visionary’, something to which the ranks of digital nomads might find themselves aspiring, has a currency all the more powerful for it having lost touch with the conditions which gave rise to it.

This bullshit came from somewhere and it felt a certain way to the people who first encountered it. We can’t explain its subsequent iterations, as well as the cultural power it has exercised, without appreciating these origins. But it’s still with us, identifiable in the propensity to find certain people shiny and certain lifestyles alluring.

It intersects with other cultural trends, such as the ‘road warriors’ explored in Up In The Air, lending them an epochal lure by association, as if living life in this way leaves one at the bleeding edge of social change, bringing the new world into being through the very act of living one’s life:

I’m interested in these lifestyles, valorising acceleration and the pleasures associated with it, as forms of life which emerged under conditions of socio-technical change. They became logistically possible, financially possible for some (though not others) and represented in popular culture. What effect did this have on how people saw the options available to them in life? How has it shaped our unspoken understandings of what it is to live life ‘fully’? What political work has this inadvertently achieved?

As Turner describes on loc 2582, what now seem to many like regressive views (valorising the freelance economy as inherently liberating to workers) were at the time radical cultural sentiments, at odds with the prevailing socio-economic order:

But Barlow’s account of cyberspace also mingled the countercultural critique of technocracy with a celebration of the mobility and independence required of information workers in a rapidly networking economy: I’m a member of that half of the human race which is inclined to divide the human race into two kinds of people. My dividing line runs between the people who crave certainty and the people who trust chance…. Large organizations and their drones huddle on one end of my scale, busily trying to impose predictable homogeneity on messy circumstance. On the other end, free-lancers and ne’er-do-wells cavort about, getting by on luck if they get by at all.

In its most extreme versions, this liberation could be from embodiment itself: as Barlow once wrote, “In this silent world, all conversation is typed. To enter it, one foresakes both body and place and becomes a thing of words alone”.

This was a radical and profound freedom, particularly in the context of a post-60s counterculture that had raised itself on a hostility towards the stifling bureaucracy of post-war American life. But these lofty, even metaphysical ideas, emerged alongside networked employment, providing a powerful framing which obscured the specificity of economic relations that would soon be generalised throughout the social order. However, the challenge is to recognise this ideological function while nonetheless acknowledging the novelty of this form of life. From loc 867:

Only the freestanding individual “could find the time to think in a cosmically adequate manner,” he explained. Fuller himself lived accordingly: for most of his career, he migrated among a series of universities and colleges, designing projects, collaborating with students and faculty – and always claiming the rights to whatever the collaborations produced.

This image of “an entrepreneurial, individualistic mode of being that was far from the world of the organization man” (loc 775) is still with us. Living freely, living passionately, living everywhere. It’s a powerful ideal, floating free within our contemporary culture, with specific roots in a peculiarly American tradition.

From The Mediated Construction of Reality, by Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp, loc 2896-2912:

While there are only so many bodies of a certain size that can fit into a finite space –there are certain natural limits to spatial packing, beyond which the attempt to pack just has to stop (otherwise, bodies get crushed) –the same is not true in time: there is literally no limit to how many messages, each sent in a non-synchronous mode, can ‘be there together’ in one’s inbox, each requiring response ‘now’ across a range of communicative platforms. The situation is very different with white noise, where countless signals cancel each other out so that nothing distinct can be heard. The challenge of communication overload is that each message can be heard –as the carrier of a distinct meaning –yet it cannot be attended to, since the time required for doing so is lacking. In this way, contemporary arrangements for communication tend to generate time-packing demands on individuals, from moment-to-moment, which along with the related of communicative obligations they can never, in principle, fulfil.

‘thin time’ where there is no wider normative framework for ordering action-sequences relative to each other. But they are deeply problematic in ‘thick’ time, or what Robert Hassan (2003, p. 233) calls ‘network time’, that is, ‘digitally compressed clock-time’ in which the temporal calibration of obligations within particular figurations is intensified. The contemporary workplace and the social relations of those periods of intense change in one’s social networks (such as adolescence or early adulthood) are likely to be periods of ‘thick time’ when the burden of communicative obligations left unfulfilled due to time-deficits is felt more strongly (Turkle, 2011). Problems of coordination in periods of ‘thick time’ become potential problems for any wider figurational order.

Soon after becoming Finance Minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis found himself surrounded by civil servants whose loyalties he could not assume and staff parachuted in by a political party with which he had little prior affiliation. In his political memoir, Adults In The Room, he recounts his impulse to find “a minder whose loyalties would not be shared with any of my new Syriza comrades, let alone the deputy PM”. He turned to an old friend from university to serve this purpose, describing on loc 2873 the risks he sought protection from:

‘To keep me out of jail, Wassily,’ I replied. He understood. Ministers of finance are at the mercy of their minders. They sign dozens of documents, decrees, contracts and appointments daily. It is humanly impossible to examine closely everything they sign. All it takes is a hostile or absent-minded aide, and suddenly the minister faces the wrath of the public or a summons to court.

What is the danger here? The pace at which he is forced to work, the number of documents which he must formally assess, preclude a meaningful engagement with their content. This is something which could be exploited by those able to exercise an influence over what goes into his in-tray. The specific risks he faced were unique to his role as Finance Minister, as well as the times and circumstances under which he served.

However is there a broader lesson here about distraction and culpability? To what extent do our moral and legal notions of culpability rest on an assumption of the considered evaluation of our actions? If this is the case, it follows that distraction is something which political philosophers ought to take seriously. It has consequences at the moral level, in terms of how we attribute responsibility to persons. But it is also something we should consider in legal terms, if the attribution of culpability rests on assumptions about the socio-temporal conditions for evaluation which were absent in practice.

There’s a helpful summary on Wikipedia of the degrees of culpability recognised in criminal law in the United States:

  • A person causes a result purposely if the result is his/her goal in doing the action that causes it,
  • A person causes a result knowingly if he/she knows that the result is virtually certain to occur from the action he/she undertakes,
  • A person causes a result recklessly if he/she is aware of and disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk of the result occurring from the action, and
  • A person causes a result negligently if there is a substantial and unjustifiable risk he/she is unaware of but should be aware of.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culpability

If we accept the argument that distraction is socially and culturally produced, should this lead us to qualify the third and fourth dimensions of culpability? I want to sustain the argument that recklessness and negligence are in an important sense liable to be produced systematically, even if it remains extremely difficult to quantify such a claim. What does distraction mean for political theory and political philosophy?

Earlier this morning, I found myself impatiently waiting in my local petrol station to purchase a drink before I went swimming. The woman in front me in the queue was rather slow. Initially seeming surprised that money would be required for the transaction, she proceeded to initiate an entirely different process to locate her coins after handing over the necessary notes. Having completed the exchange, she gathered her things with a similar lack of pace, slowly preparing to leave the shop. It was at that point that she gently chided me for rushing her, suddenly leaving me aware that this was in fact what I was doing by impatiently lingering while effectively pointing towards the cashier with my drink.

With this newfound awareness, my irritation at her transmuted into an irritation with myself. Why was I being so impatient? Why was I being needlessly rude? It immediately occurred to me that this was an example of what I mean by cognitive triage. Having woken up later than planned, I started the day with a vivid sense of all the tasks I had to complete, with one leading in sequence to the next. There were a couple of things that had to be done today but this sense of urgency mostly reflected a desire to be on top of things before I headed off to the midlands for the rest of the week.

It was an anticipatory urgency: a haste animated by the fear of falling behind in the future. This can be distinguished from rushing to meet a deadline. The imminent arrival of a deadline offers a fixed temporal horizon for an activity. One rushes and then ceases to rush. In contrast, anticipatory urgency is potentially open-ended. If an upcoming event is a threat to ‘being on top of things’ then where to draw the line in terms of what is required to be prepared? My suggestion is that anticipatory urgency engenders a peculiarly hasty form of haste. It involves rushing in a rushed way. Not simply speeding up to meet a deadline but trying to speed up one’s speeding up. How much can I get done before I go away? How prepared do I need to be? It’s a reflexive orientation that can bring out the worst in people, as my rudeness in the garage illustrates.

There is a pleasure in speed, as Milan Kundera powerfully captures in his Slowness. There is the possibility of transcendence. On pg 3-4 he describes the inner experience of a man on a motorbike:

the man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present instance of his flight; he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time; he is outside time; in other words he is in a state of ecstasy. In that state he is unaware of his age, his wife, his children, his worries, and so he has no fear, because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear.

In contrast, I’d argue, anticipatory urgency precludes this. One is not cut off from past and future but profoundly implicated in the relationship between the two. The present is subordinated the future, with the usual texture of temporality being reduced to an endless sequence of moments. Each one is simply a challenge lying in the way of reaching the next. It creates flat time. This suppression of relationality is licensed by the promise that the important events will come and our anticipatory urgency will have left us properly open to them. But the more time we spent in a state of anticipatory urgency, the less likely it is that this promise will ever be realised.

Earlier on this month, Hartmut Rosa gave a fascinating lecture at the LSE, marking the launch of this new book on the Sociology of Speed. It’s a great overview of his theory of acceleration, but it also included some things I hadn’t encountered before:

  1. His intellectual trajectory was shaped by encountering Charles Taylor’s work while at the LSE for two terms at the age of 23. I knew Taylor was a huge influence, given Rosa’s PhD was devoted to his work, but I hadn’t realised how linked to speed his interest was. As he describes it in the lecture, he was fascinated by Taylor’s focus on the role of strong evaluations in structuring how people orientate themselves to their lives but felt it lacked an important temporal dimension. Evidently, people often address the urgent rather than the important, suggesting temporal constraints subordinate ultimate concerns to practical considerations. My reaction to reading Taylor as a philosophy student was an overwhelming desire to sociologize his work, something Rosa does with an astonishing degree of systematicity, though of course there are alternative ways we could approach this task. Consider Doug Porpora’s wonderful Landscapes of the Soul.
  2. I recall the ‘contraction of the present’ from Social Acceleration but I’m unsure if it is the framing that has changed or my response to it. Rosa’s argument is that patterns of association and social practices change at an increasing rate. This means that the “decay rates of knowledge increase”: the purchase of our knowledge about the world and how it works degrades at an increasing rate because the reality of that world and how it works undergoes change at an increasing rate. The period of stability when “you know how the world works, who is where and how one does things” is contracting. If one accepts this claim, it has huge ramifications for how we engage with the idea of “information overload”. There’s a temporal dynamic to the overproduction of facts which is too little analysed.
  3. I like his description of the subjective side of the accelerating pace of life as mysterious. We respond to this challenge by attempting to speed up life, seeking more episodes of action per unit of time. We multi-task, speed up each action and try to eliminate pauses and intervals. I like his example of taking the last possible train to an event, in order to avoid waiting once there. This is something I do entirely habitually, such that I rarely even consider allowing for contingencies unless there’s some reason to expect them. But when it goes wrong, the time saving action gets revealed as a false efficiency. There are so many examples like this, where what feels like saving time in fact costs us more time at some unpredictable point in the future. I’d like to hear more from Rosa on the ‘mysterious’ character of the subjective side of the accelerating pace of life because I think it suggests something important about chronoreflexivity: the limited scope of how we orientate ourselves to time & the way in which habitual orientations circumscribe considered decision making about efficiencies.
  4. He offers the useful trajectory of the downwards escalator which I don’t recall encountering before. This is a metaphor for how we find ourselves compelled to “run faster and faster to keep pace with the world”. Rosa suggests we stand on a downward escalator relative to every system we’re embedded within and that we stand on many overlapping escalators. Furthermore, “functional differentiation increases the number of escalators on which we stand”, proposing that this issue can be placed at the heart of sociological analysis. Every change within each system necessitates action from us in order to cope. As Rosa puts it “we have to run faster and faster, on more and more escalators, just to stay in place” and the “feeling that time is scare commodity” leads us to seek faster technologies. What Ruth Müller describes as anticipatory acceleration in the context of careers could be extended into a general theory of the relative autonomy of agency vis-a-vis temporal structures i.e. when the necessity of ‘running faster and faster’ becomes sufficiently engrained, we begin to accelerate in an open-ended way as a taken for granted approach to life. I’m very interested in the cultural role played by productivity discourse, life hacking etc in encouraging and consolidating such a response to the world. Plus technology is embedded in this discourse at the cultural level (it’s a central focus of discussion) and the agential level (the solutions offered are often technological).
  5. He stresses that we are not just victims of the speed logic, identifying how it is tied to our notion of freedom. Drawing on Blumenberg, he stresses how death comes too early, before we have completed the world and the possibilities it offers for us. The fast life on this view represents the full life. This is a familiar argument of Rosa’s but I’d previously read it as an inditement of acceleration, rather than an analysis that is appreciative of the promise while remaining sceptical about its viability
  6. He has a greater emphasis upon what has not speeded up than has previously been the case. He talks about five dimensions of deceleration: natural and anthropological limits, cultural practices that could speed up but haven’t, territorial zones insulated from speed up, segmental pockets of deceleration under pressure to speed up and intentional deceleration. This latter category is one which fascinates me and am writing about as ‘triaging strategies’ used to cope with acceleration. As Rosa describes it, these strategies pursue “slow down in order to keep up the high pace of life”. They are ways to cope with acceleration rather than challenges to the temporal structures of digital capitalism. He also recounts being told that the average speed of traffic in London has been going down for decades, representing an example of collective slow down as individuals seek to go fast. He claims that these five dimensions of deceleration are either residual or reactions. He argues there’s an asymmetry between deceleration and acceleration, grounded in the different mechanisms producing each.

These ideas made me think of one of my favourite genres of YouTube videos:

 

What’s the moral status of ‘thoughtlessness’? It can be invoked as a defence, used to claim that an action was less morally problematic because it expressed a lack of consideration rather than a deliberate intention. But as the wise Jim Gordon once pointed out, such actions can actually be worse in a way, reflecting a wilful thoughtlessness (that could easily have been otherwise) rather than a deficit of character (which is at least somewhat engrained):

img_0270

But where I part ways with Gordon’s moralism concerns the conditions under which such thoughtlessness becomes likely. What happens to responsibility if we are becoming more socially distracted, driven by many overlapping factors in personal life and working life, such that we have less time and space to deliberate? Is it possible we are all tending to become less likely to think through the consequences of our actions, at least some of the time? If rushing is becoming an endemic social condition, albeit one not uniformly distributed, what does this mean for the possibility of responsibility? Is distraction diminishing us on a moral level?

In the last month, I’ve seen two scenes of automated retail which I wish I could have taken a photograph of. In the first scene, people were queuing up for the automated checkouts at Marks & Spencer in Euston station while multiple cashiers were left redundant at their station. It’s a shop I use a lot and I remember when the automated checkouts were first installed, often being left unused while people opted to queue as per routine. In the second scene, each of the ten automated checkouts at my local supermarket were occupied by ten people, standing passively as an error message flashed on the screen. Eventually, as I began to contemplate whether I could legitimately take a photo (or even go to a non-automated checkout and stop treating a trip to the supermarket as a sociological expedition) a guy came along and slowly began clearing the error messages one-by-one.

I was struck by a sense of sequencing between these two scenes, immediately recalling the image from Marks & Spencer in Euston which I had long since forgotten. People quickly adapt to the automation of retail, perhaps motivated by a sense that it is quicker and more efficient, even though it is frequently anything but. In reality, I suspect the truth of the motivation is more complex, perhaps reflecting what Ian Craib described as the discomfort with disappointment that leads us to escape the ‘mess of life’. Bit by bit, we become less inclined to tolerate the fleeting awkwardness of everyday life, the falterings that can unpredictably afflict mundane interactions and the loss of emotional energy, however minute, it takes to get through them. For instance, I couldn’t help but wonder why the guy in his 60s who was struggling to buy a newspaper on an automated checkout had opted to so, let alone continued with it in the face of mounting of obstacles. This is all speculative but a psychoanalytics of everyday automation remains an important endeavour. Can we assume that people will happily shunt over to automated retail en masse, carefully nudged along by retailers? If so, why would retailers preserve staff other than to ensure a baseline degree of functionality in human-computer interaction? The shadow work of coaxing desirable outcomes out of recalcitrant machines seems liable to become an even more central part of our lives than it is at present.

In John Thompson’s Merchants of Culture, there’s an interesting remark about the structural position of first time authors which I think has wider purchase. From pg 200:

Ironically, in a world preoccupied by numbers, the author with no track is in some ways in a strong position, considerably stronger than the author who has published one or two books with modest success and muted acclaim, simply because there are no hard data to constrain the imagination, no disappointing sales figures to dampen hopes and temper expectations. The absence of sales figures sets the imagination free. The first-time author is the true tabula rasa of trade publishing, because his or her creation is the book for which it is still possible to imagine anything and everything.

A world where metrics are ubiquitous is a world where imagination has died. When everyone has a track record, the space to imagine someone’s future as radically different from their past collapses.