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  • Mark 3:19 pm on November 9, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , distraction, exchange,   

    The economics of attention vs the sociology of attention 

    The Attention Economy and the Net is a remarkably prescient piece, widely seen to have coined the eponymous term and containing insights which are still relevant two decades later. The framing of the economy unsurprisingly shapes the approach he adopts and it creates a focus on exchange which I find problematic in some respects. This isn’t because there aren’t questions to be asked about the exchange of attention. There are many and this paper raises them in powerful ways. But exchange isn’t always the same thing and the ‘economy’ metaphor* flattens out these differences:

    1. He observes on pg 2 that attention “is an intrinsically scarce resource”. However it doesn’t follow from that we “have a certain stock of attention at [our] disposal” which can be allocated in different ways. This imputes a voluntarism to our capacity to attend which is phenomenologically, neurophysiologically and ontologically untenable. It helps draw attention to the role of competition in shaping what we attend to but it suggests we can simply exchange our attention qua commodity in relation to changing circumstances. But I don’t think this is the case. When a fire alarm goes off I can be said to reallocate attention from the task at hand but this fails to grasp the involuntary character of the apparent exchange. From the perspective of someone interested in distraction, thinking about allocation helps make sense of sources of distraction but obscures the question of how, why and to what degree these things distract us by leaving us describing these outcomes as reallocations of a uniform and fungible commodity. It loses the quality of attention in its focus on the quantity and how it is distributed.
    2. It’s hard to make sense of the lasting effects of attention if we see it as a matter of exchange. He writes on pg 6 that attentional wealth accrues through the enduring effects of past attention, creating mental traces which can be reactived at a later late. This is an important point about how the cumulative influence which can be achieved through attention but it speaks to the involuntary character of our allocation. It suggests over the life course people carry an increasing quantity of traces of past attending which can be activated at a later date, insightfully pointing to biographical dynamics which I can’t see how it’s possible to explain unless we dispense with the metaphor of allocation. The same is true of his point about the capacity to attention to enable us to exercise power over an audience.
    3. His point about money flowing with attention but not vice versa on pg 7 is an important one which speaks to current debates about organic vs paid advertising. But this further underscores the non-vountaristic nature of what we attend to because it highlights how attention has to be won, in a manner which prods the subject into expanding their energy, it can’t simply be stimulated in a mechanical fashion. It could be argued that I’m taking the notion of allocation too literally here but the point of a metaphor is that it opens up and closes down its object. I’m suggesting we lose an important part of the picture if we see it in these terms.

    *It’s not literally an economy, as much as a way of highlighting the increasing salience of attention as an economic factor and how this reflects an economic transformation. There is a literal aspect to this framing but it smuggles in a metaphorical aspect which I think is more dubious. It makes the transformation seem more epochal, drawing sharper boundaries than would otherwise be the case, as it becomes a matter of transitioning between the ‘old economy’ and the ‘new economy’. He acknowledges the problem with what Mike Savage calls epochal theorising at the start of the article but doesn’t really avoid the pitfalls associated with it.

  • Mark 3:35 pm on September 1, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: akedia, , distraction   

    The spiritual death of the digital age 

    From The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour loc 3166:

    No one consciously sets out to devote themselves to the machine, to become its addict. Its veto power over all other possible attentions takes place, cumulatively, through every apparently free choice made as a user. We drop into the dead zone, the ‘ticker trance’ of feed addiction, by increment. The way the chronophagic machine fights for our attention recalls what Eastern Christianity used to call the demon of acedia. This was a predecessor of the modern concept of melancholia, and it was used in monasteries (those ancient writing machines) to describe an affliction of the devoted. In the original Greek, ‘akedia’ meant ‘lack of care’. In the Latinized Christian use propagated by Evagrius of Pontus, it described a lack of care about one’s life; a listless, restless spiritual lethargy. The condition left one yearning for distraction and continual novelty, exploiting one’s petty hates and hungers. It dissolved one’s capacity for attending, for living as if living mattered, into a series of itches demanding to be scratched. Ultimately, it was dehumanizing, corrosive of meaning: it was spiritual death.

  • Mark 1:33 pm on August 22, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , distraction,   

    The attention sinks which stop us dreaming 

    From Richard Seymour’s The Twittering Machine loc 1148:

    The vacancies of attention that we must fill appear during public transport journeys, on lunch and toilet breaks, during impasses in dinner conversation, or in those frequent interludes in working life where there is nothing to do but the employee is obliged to look busy. If we didn’t have somewhere to put excess attention, who knows what dreams would come? The stars are a magnet for excess attention: attention-sinks. And they are made, not born.

  • Mark 8:41 am on March 30, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , distraction   

    A cybernetics of distraction? 

    There’s an interesting aside in Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain on pg 98 which has left me thinking about why I’m so interested in distraction:

    Here he tied his essay into a venerable tradition in psychiatry going back at least to the early twentieth century, namely, that madness and mental illness pointed to a failure to adapt—an inappropriate mental fixity in the face of the flux of events.

    While I obviously don’t think distraction is a mental illness, I do think it can be characterised as a failure to adapt. But as insufficient mental fixity in the face of events, as opposed to an excess of fixity. It is a failure to find form, a distinct stance towards a situation liable to give rise to action within it.

  • Mark 9:11 pm on November 12, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , distraction, , tech firms   

    a DDoS attack on the human will   

    This is the provocative phrase which James Williams uses to describe the attention economy on pg 87 of Stand Out of Our Light:

    Uncritical deployment of the human-as-computer metaphor is today the well of a vast swamp of irrelevant prognostications about the human future. If people were computers, however, the appropriate description of the digital attention economy’s incursions upon their processing capacities would be that of the distributed denial-of-service, or DDoS, attack. In a DDoS attack, the attacker controls many computers and uses them to send many repeated requests to the target computer, effectively overwhelming its capacity to communicate with any other computer. The competition to monopolize our attention is like a DDoS attack against the human will.

    I find this a curious description because a DDoS attack is a deliberate action undertaken in a coordinated way with malign intent. None of these descriptions are true of the attention economy, with even its deliberateness being a matter of individual action rather than aggregate outcome; the problem comes because multiple actors make demands on our attention at once, rather than there being a concerted effort to overwhelm us. In fact overpowering us might even be contrary to their interests.

    I find the force this description has for Williams strange because it’s an obviously bad description in an otherwise well written book. I suspect it reflects the politics underpinning the book which I want to write about in a different post. As he says on pg 89, he sees this as a politics beyond politics, a meta game which define stage horizon of political life. It’s a framing which reduces the complexity of politics into the detrimental effects of tech firms upon our attentional capacities:

    As a result, we ought to understand them as the ground of first political struggle, the politics behind politics. It is now impossible to achieve any political reform worth having without first reforming the totalistic forces that guide our attention and our lives.

  • Mark 2:49 pm on June 9, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , distraction, kitsch,   

    The consolation of kitsch 

    I’ve never completely understood my attraction to kitsch. As much as part of me would like to suggest otherwise, it’s not a knowing embrace of excessive sentimentality and contrived garishness, as much as these things genuinely appealing to me in a way that can prompt knowingness when I reflect upon it. For instance, I saw these gnomes and immediately imagined them populating my garden (alongside the ceramic pug, the metal cat, the Buddha, the snail etc).

    I find the infinite reproducibility of objects like this weirdly relaxing to be around, as if they can diffuse the anxieties of commodification by reminding us none of this really matters. Yet somehow they do matter. It made me sad when I discovered that the leg had fallen off my ceramic pug (as well as baffled by the fact I couldn’t find this leg anywhere). Not upset, just a little sad. These objects invite participation in a tamed emotional register, provoking trivial joys and fleeting feelings of loss. But they also repudiate established ideas of ‘good taste’ and provoke internal alienation in those who feel the need to aggressively enforce them.

    These kitsch objects are individualising in the sense of relativising our individual responses, leading us further into our own involvement with mass produced objects while also problematising the generic character of that involvement. They lead us to care, vaguely, while making care of that sort more visible to us than it would be in relation to more refined and distinctive commodities. Meanwhile they trouble the care of others, interrupting an evaluative order of good taste that for much of the time gets reproduced seamlessly. I find kitsch (vaguely) consoling and I feel a (fleeting) commitment to continuing to (occasionally) collect it.

  • Mark 5:28 pm on May 19, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , distraction, , , , , ,   

    Time-packing and space-packing 

    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.

  • Mark 9:44 am on May 7, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , culpability, , distraction, , , , ,   

    What does distraction mean for political theory and political philosophy? 

    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.


    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?

  • Mark 10:35 am on January 19, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , distraction, moral responsibility, ,   

    Moral Responsibility in an Age of Distraction 

    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):


    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?

    • Julie Gosling 1:28 pm on January 19, 2017 Permalink


    • Mark 2:19 pm on January 19, 2017 Permalink


    • hamaokahlisboaha 12:32 pm on January 22, 2017 Permalink

      The point is that people are just living regardless of their being called ‘distracted’ or ‘thoughtless (either willful or involuntary), or the conditions of acceleration. Responsibilities are obviously unevenly distributed, so are the prerogatives of defining conditions and ways in which people are living their respective lives. Applying your analytic frame of the evisceration, you’ll find people’s innate orientation towards being/doing good as their viscera;)

    • Mark 8:10 pm on January 23, 2017 Permalink

      don’t follow the final sentence. could you expand?

    • hamaokahlisboaha 11:08 am on January 24, 2017 Permalink

      As I was reading the questions you raised in the last paragraph of this post, I’ve thought of your another post (https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/319814/posts/1303837442 ) .
      It’s much easier for analysts to talk about their subjects’ morality than normally assumed because morality appears to be universally shared. However, it’s not easy to treat morality as everyone’s struggles for being or doing good. Even if people appear distracted and are actually distracted, no one can assert that they are getting irresponsible or less and less concerned with morality. In my view, morality always resides at the center of everyone’s everyday concerns. This is not moralism but morality in practice. Morality is demonstrated struggles for being or doing good in social practices, rather than some unwavering criteria about good or bad. According to your idea about evisceration, we should be able to extract out morality as everyone’s struggles for being good by reference to observable attributes, but it depends upon analysts’ assumptions about what viscera might look like.

    • Mark 12:45 pm on January 25, 2017 Permalink

      I think we mean ‘morality’ in a different way. I’m happy to substitute for lay normativity, as Andrew Sayer puts it,instead of ‘morality’. I’m largely in agreement with you about ‘morality in practice’: my point could be perhaps rephrased as ‘it becomes harder for morality in practice to consistently be reflective, as opposed to habitual, under present conditions’.

  • Mark 8:25 pm on January 16, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , cal newport, , distraction,   

    Quit social media 

    A provocative argument put forward by someone who’s built a high-profile secondary career through blogging:

    • anacanhoto 10:05 am on January 17, 2017 Permalink

      I am ambivalent about his ideas. First because, as you point out, he has much to thank social media for. Second, because his position is based on a view of social media which he doesn’t really discuss (and prove or disprove).

      He seems to take a view that social media is a toxic product, which we could / should do without. But is he right? Or is social media a new working and living environment, that we need to adapt to, and learn to thrive in? Is using social media like smoking, or rather like adapting to living in water?

    • Mark 2:20 pm on January 19, 2017 Permalink

      Refusing to use social media is like refusing to wear shoes, as Douglas Copeland once put it…

  • Mark 1:51 pm on September 3, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , bounding variety, , , distraction, ,   

    The necessity of selection 

    This is a really nice account in Damon Young’s Distraction of what Margaret Archer calls the necessity of selection. From pg 2:

    Psychological blockages are part of a much larger set of limitations: those of mortal life itself. There are only so many professions, sexual partners, houses, entertainments and amusements available; and we only have so many days to invest in each. To commit to this job, this spouse, this leisure, this gadget is to withdraw time, energy and wherewithal from another possibility. This economy extends from the most obvious and pointed life choices to the inestimable, inarticulate decisions we make each and every hour. Put simply, to be human is to be finite –“born to a limited situation’, as Goethe put it. Because of this, the good life warrants an ongoing struggle to be clear about what’s important, and to seek it with lucidity and passion; not to be distracted by false ambitions, or waylaid by dissipated consciousness.

    In a recent paper I tried to explore how the cultural abundance provided by digitalisation complicates this process. There are many potential strategies for seeking the clarity Young describes but they necessarily involve filtering, be that personal, social, technological and/or social: delimiting the pool of logically possible options to render choice manageable.

    This filtering becomes harder because of the immediacy with which we grasp (paradoxically mediated) possibilities which filtering forecloses. My core claim is that there’s a general tendency for it to become experienced as more difficult to “to commit to this job, this spouse, this leisure” etc.

  • Mark 3:58 pm on June 7, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: balance, distraction, ,   

    Work Life Balance + Digital Conference 

    A really interesting conference I wish I could make it to:

    Work Life Balance + Digital Conference

    We’ve got a few £20/£12 places left for our “BEYOND BALANCE: How digital technologies are affecting our work, our homes, and everything in between” conference in London on Mon 27 June that we wanted to highlight to sociologists with an interest in the digital. You can see the full conference timetable and sign-up (by Fri 10 Jun) via this link: http://balancenetwork.bimserver2.com/index.php/events/item/52-beyond-balance. This event is at the newly refurbished Savoy Place (Covent Garden/Embankment). Sessions by psychology, sociology, human-computer interaction, tourism and design academics from across 16 UK universities. To sign-up to monthly Balance Network bulletins on work-life balance and digital living email stephanie.cziczo@anglia.ac.uk.

  • Mark 5:31 pm on May 30, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , distraction, immersion, ,   

    “The second I walk through those doors, all my problems go away. The second I leave them, my problems are back” 

    In Grayson Perry’s All Man, the artist interviews an MMA fighter in the north-east of England who describes the joy he takes in fighting:

    The second I walk through them doors to the second I walk out, it’s heaven in here. It’s heaven. All your problems go away. The second you walk out the door, they’re back. Your problems are back.

    This is an experience that fascinates me: immersion in a task, the contraction of temporal horizons, opens up the possibilities of profound pleasures (those intrinsic to the activity at hand) and distance from sources of worry and anxiety (the deliberations sparked by the broader context of your life).

    This is what I describe generically as triaging: something that can be deliberately embraced, inculcated as a pragmatic response to a context or as some combination of the two. The overarching aim of my current book is to develop a moral psychology of triaging, grounded in an analysis of the socio-cultural conditions of digital capitalism.

  • Mark 10:54 pm on May 29, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , distraction, photography, sontag,   

    The Blizzard of Photography 

    I just came across this brief reference in Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success which makes me think it’s important to read Sontag to develop my case about digital distraction. From pg 63:

    Susan Sontag would observe in On Photography that inexpensive photos, produced by the hundreds, created a record that allowed an unprecedented level of self-examination—she called it “self surveillance”—that discouraged spontaneous human expression and encouraged posing and playacting. People were generally too busy to devote much time to considering how they were affected by the media bombardment and simply absorbed it or reacted as best they could.

    On pg 113, he also references Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism. A fascinating book I now plan to return to in order to help me develop my current project:

    In his 1979 book, The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch described an America in which people accepted that one’s image, whether it was transmitted on television or in a family photo album, was a vital source of identity and power. At the same time, people felt alienated by their work in large corporations and life in sprawling suburbs. Taken together, these developments made vast numbers of people feel dissatisfied and determined to relieve their anxieties through the development of an appealing image for others to see, complete with the possessions and experiences—fancy vacations captured in snapshots—others could admire.

    • Martha Bell 9:27 pm on May 30, 2016 Permalink

      Regarding Sontag’s reference self-surveillance through endless (self)photography, can we see this in similar terms to obsessing with looking in the mirror…an older form of (self)distraction especially constructing femininity. I think you should pursue Sontag.

    • Mark 1:24 pm on June 3, 2016 Permalink

      I’m convinced!

  • Mark 3:10 pm on April 20, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , distraction, focus, ,   

    Sustaining your focus throughout the working day 

    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 http://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.

  • Mark 10:31 am on February 22, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , , distraction, energisation, energy,   

    “feeling more or less alive on different days” 

    I came across this wonderful passage by William James, quoted by Robert Frodeman in Sustainable Knowledge and reproduced on Brainpickings here:

    Every one is familiar with the phenomenon of feeling more or less alive on different days. Every one knows on any given day that there are energies slumbering in him which the incitements of that day do not call forth, but which he might display if these were greater. Most of us feel as if a sort of cloud weighed upon us, keeping us below our highest notch of clearness in discernment, sureness in reasoning, or firmness in deciding. Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.


  • Mark 7:36 pm on January 14, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , , , distraction, , tinder,   

    the tinderization of everyday life 

    I love this essay (HT Su Oman) – I recently presented a paper The Challenge of Flourishing Amidst Variety and it was a very different approach to precisely the same questions. Read it in full here.

    LIVING with a sense of overwhelming choice means exerting an insane amount of emotional energy in making the most banal decisions. What should you watch on Hulu tonight? Make a Facebook status asking for recommendations. Tweet the question to your followers. After perusing for an hour, settle comfortably into Seinfeld, which you’ve seen a million times before. Wonder whether you made the wrong choice. Do it again anyway. There is some comfort in sameness.

    When the mundane act of choosing a television show to watch is emotionally taxing, relationships are next-level shit. But millennials have a solution: Tinderize it. Tinderize it all.

    In an increasingly networked society where people are always ready to connect, the pacing of emotional intimacy has to be constantly tweaked. Dating apps facilitate rapid connection and constant communication, but trusting someone still takes as long as it ever did. So Tinder demands a certain amount of emotional dissociation — to distance oneself from emotions by treating connecting to others as a game. The only criteria is to choose and choose fast, choose as many as you want, choose so many you’re not even making a choice. This simplicity can provide sweet relief.

    But Tinder is more than a dating app — it is a metaphor for speeding up and mechanizing decision-making, turning us into binary creatures who can bypass underlying questions and emotions and instead go with whatever feels really good in the moment. Its mechanisms perfect the similar either-or options other social media platforms have offered, the yes/no, like/ignore, retweet/pass dichotomy that leaves no room for maybe. Within Tinder, we sort each other into ones and zeroes, flattening away any human complexity, becoming efficient robots. Where a best friend might engage with you about the true motivations behind your choices, Tinder serves as Robot Bestie, there to make complex decisions seem easy, shorn of emotional entanglements.

    Tinder offers a model for streamlining virtually any kind of decision making, but the streamlining exacts its price. Swipe right and match, then match again, and then see you’ve received 15 matches in five minutes and could continue on this way indefinitely. It is too much.

    At the point of maximum social and techno-sexual stimulation, a total withdrawal — total disconnection amid default connectivity — begins to feel like the only way to actually say no. This coy form of avoidance is not about “playing hard to get”; it’s about preserving one’s sanity in the face of so much connectivity and emotional energy. But this refusal feels not only like a shutdown of others but also of yourself.


  • Mark 8:00 am on January 1, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , , distraction, enjoyment, , ,   

    enjoying it: candy crush and capitalism 

    I was slightly disappointed by Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism but I’ve come away from it with one core concept stuck in my mind. The author distinguishes between what he calls ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ enjoyment: the former is that which ‘serves’ social and cultural structures, while the latter is pointless activity which serves no purpose. I take his point to be that, say, a high minded enjoyment of work is ‘productive enjoyment’ (or maybe blogging about social theory) while a game like the cat simulator I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve been playing for the last month counts as ‘unproductive enjoyment’.

    He argues that we fail to recognise the radical potential in unproductive enjoyment while failing to recognise the conformist compliance in productive enjoyment. In doing so, we obscure the relation between them, with unproductive and productive enjoyments forming two sides of the organisation of desire in contemporary capitalism. His argument here isn’t clear to me, as he seems to say that ‘unproductive enjoyment’ naturalises a sense of joyless work by implicitly treating it as something from which we need mindless distractions, while also trying to sustain a view that we take enjoyment from work. Nonetheless, I think he opens up some really interesting questions about the proliferation of ‘unproductive enjoyments’ against a context of the intensification of (insecure) work.

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