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?

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/06/15/william-james-the-energies-of-men-second-wind/

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.

http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/tinderization-of-feeling/

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.

I’ve written in the past about the pleasures of acceleration, how speeding up can prove satisfying because of the opportunities it can present for evading difficult issues that an actor might otherwise find themselves forced to confront. There’s a really interesting section in Addiction By Design pg 54 which speaks to this idea:

Speed is a critical element of the zone experience. “I play really fast,” a middle- aged tax accountant named Shelly told me. “I don’t like to wait, I want to know what’s gonna come out. If a machine is slow, I move to a faster one.” “I usually play just with one hand,” said a college student named Julie; “you probably couldn’t even see the cards, that’s how fast I go” (her eyes widened and glazed over in front of an imaginary screen, index finger punching rapidly). Gambling addicts speak of speed as a kind of skill, even when it leads them to miss hands they might have won. 9 “Sometimes I’d get into such a rhythm on the machine that I’d mistakenly discard winning hands,” recalled Sharon, whom we met in the introduction. “It was more about keeping the pace than making the right decisions.” “Keeping the pace” is critical to the zone experience, as gamblers articulate. “The speed is relaxing,” said Lola, a buffet waitress and mother of four. “It’s not exactly excitement; it’s calm, like a tranquilizer. It gets me into the zone.” Randall, an electronics technician in his late forties, has a long- standing penchant for vehicles that enable him to escape with speed— motorcycles, racing dragsters, and video poker. “In a very paradoxical way,” he reflected, “the speed of it slows me down. Both the fact that I’m in motion and the risk of it are calming, and kind of mechanical.” As he recognizes, a mechanically mediated tempo functions as a form of predictability that structures and regulates his play, transforming risk into rhythm. As long as gamblers hold their speed steady, it suspends them in the holding pattern of the zone.

An email sent to the entirety of SpaceX by Elon Musk, as quoted in Ashlee Vance’s book about him, pg 238-239:

There is a creeping tendency to use made up acronyms at SpaceX. Excessive use of made up acronyms is a significant impediment to communication and keeping communication good as we grow is incredibly important. Individually, a few acronyms here and there may not seem so bad, but if a thousand people are making these up, over time the result will be a huge glossary that we have to issue to new employees. No one can actually remember all these acronyms and people don’t want to seem dumb in a meeting, so they just sit there in ignorance. This is particularly tough on new employees. That needs to stop immediately or I will take drastic action— I have given enough warnings over the years. Unless an acronym is approved by me, it should not enter the SpaceX glossary. 

If there is an existing acronym that cannot reasonably be justified, it should be eliminated, as I have requested in the past. For example, there should be no “HTS” [horizontal test stand] or “VTS” [vertical test stand] designations for test stands. Those are particularly dumb, as they contain unnecessary words. A “stand” at our test site is obviously a *test* stand. VTS- 3 is four syllables compared with “Tripod,” which is two, so the bloody acronym version actually takes longer to say than the name! The key test for an acronym is to ask whether it helps or hurts communication. An acronym that most engineers outside of SpaceX already know, such as GUI, is fine to use. It is also ok to make up a few acronyms/contractions every now and again, assuming I have approved them, eg MVac and M9 instead of Merlin 1C- Vacuum or Merlin 1C- Sea Level, but those need to be kept to a minimum.

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

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

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

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

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

Another startlingly illuminating point in Retrieving Realism by Dreyfus and Taylor. At loc 665, they observe how Heidegger’s early work “undercuts another basic feature of the classical picture: that the primary input is neutral, and is only at a later stage attributed some meaning by the agent.” This is a familiar point but I’ve never encountered it stated so lucidly before. It has important connotations for how we conceive of digital distraction. Broadly, we could take two paths:

  1. Digital abundance presents agents with an overwhelming quantity of potentially relevant information to which they must attribute meaning, or forgo this with potential consequences 
  2. Digital abundance presents agents with an overwhelming quantity of potentially relevant information, which is already meaningful due to the relations of complementarity and contradiction which obtain between this novelty and already encountered variety (or forgo this with potential consequences)

The first view sees digital distraction as an information processing challenging. The second view sees digital distraction as an existential challenge. This has important implications for how we make sense of it sociologically.

I just came across this advert in Dublin advert. On the surface, it’s interesting on a straight forwardly chronopolitical level: with sufficient resources, it’s increasingly possible to outsource tasks for others in order to save yourself time. But what stood out to me about this was the increasingly formal category of ‘relaxation’: it’s becoming that which awaits us when all other obligations are met, which of course they never are due to the escalation dynamics which kick in as we reflexively orientate ourselves towards demands upon our time.

leisure

Having spent the day hanging around airports due to circumstances beyond my control, I’ve been struck by how orientated the space is towards the stimulation of shopping, eating, boozing and gambling. Manchester Airport literally has betting terminals scattered at regular intervals around the airport, even near some of the gates. Surely the justification for the centrality of these activities is that they constitute leisure. So what exactly is the personal shopping service saving time in order to help people do?

I just cut this from my chapter for the upcoming CSO book. I don’t think it’s very good but I’m still trying to develop the underlying point so any thoughts are much appreciated:

To talk of ‘interruption events’ not be construed as a narrow issue of decreased performance, such that this putative fracturing of focus amounts to a generalised tendency towards decreasing efficiency in practical activity. The psychological literature on task interruption is inconsistent to this end, finding evidence both for interruptions leading to an increase in the time taken to perform a task but also at times to a decrease which has been attributed to the increase arousal that variably results from interruption or to strategic responses to multiple interruptions (Altmann and Trafton 2007: 1079). In fact this latter point is crucial for an analysis that foregrounds reflexivity: the awareness subjects have of their environmental propensity for interruption and its implications for what matters to them can and does feed into reflexive calibration of that environment or to more extended projects seeking to transform self and/or circumstances (not all of which will manifest empirically in terms of the limited variables which are the focus in the cognitive psychology of attention control). The concern of the present paper is not with the duration of interruptions or with the resumption lag (the time between the interruption and the first subsequent task related action) but rather with the social production of those interruption which these rather fine-grained instruments seek to measure the cognitive consequences of in an experimental setting[1]. This entails generalizing about categories of interruption events (e.g. receiving a notification of an e-mail via a smart phone) as tending to be of certain durations and involving a likely range within which the resumption lag falls. The ensuing cognitive lag, encompassing reacquaintance with the task at hand and/or one’s place within it (Ratwani and Trafton 2008: 679), will be individually trivial but might nonetheless be aggregatively significant if such events occupy increasing portions of a subject’s waking life.

However the exercise of reflexivity is an activity unlike many others. Whereas resumption of practical activities often depends upon environmental cues, for instance the arrangements of material within a workspace, these are absent for the resumption of reflexivity. Furthermore, reflexivity may not be categorized as a task by subjects (represented at best in terms such as ‘clearing my head’ or ‘working out what to do about X’) entailing a different dynamic of resumption lag to other forms of practical activity. For instance Wilson et al (2014) sought to better understand time use survey data recording that 95% of American adults had undertaken at least leisure activity in the past 24 hours but 83% reported having spent no time at all ‘thinking or relaxing’ While we should not conflate the exercise of reflexivity with deliberately pursuing its exercise as an activity (conceptualizing it as such and making time available for it) this finding is suggestive of a tendency for sustained time for reflection as being something which is neither pursued nor in many cases experienced as something generally possible.

Such interruption events are clearly not new. In fact the possibility of an interruption in this sense is intrinsic to the faculty of reflexivity: interruption events begin to be possible once there is something to be interrupted. The specific claim being made here concerns the escalation of such events and the implications thereof for personal reflexivity. Both the former and the latter are variable. Different social contexts (particularly, though not exclusively, in relation to their socio-technical dimensions) involve different propensities towards interruption with differential implications for modes of personal reflexivity. The present paper focuses upon digital devices and their attendant socio-technical infrastructure as encountered in everyday life (conceived schematically in terms of a transition from web 1.0 to web 2.0 and an, as yet incomplete, web 3.0) but this is for the sake of brevity and the notion of the interruption events should not be restricted to digital technology. The proposal being made is that any history of reflexivity implies a corresponding history of interruption events, with our understanding of the former being enriched by a greater understanding of the latter. Many resolutely non-digital factors would enter into a history of interruption events and these have in fact been studied in depth, just not under the rubric being proposed here: for instance historical work on the pervasive lack of solitude prior to the 18th century[2] (Taylor 1989, p. 291) and Simmel’s reflections on the “essentially intellectualistic character of the mental life of the metropolis” that emerges from the preponderance of novelty within the urban environment (Simmel 1905).

In fact Simmel’s famous essay illustrates the important point that will be developed later in this section: the relationship between interruption events and reflexivity should not be construed in a linear away, such that people in general are seen to become decreasingly unable to sustain deliberations with the multiplication of interruption events. For Simmel the urban environment, particularly the “the calculating exactness of practical life” in which the “money economy” has “filled the daily life of so many people with weighing, calculating, enumerating and the reduction of qualitative values to quantitative terms”, contributes to the intensification of reflexivity in one dimension (instrumentality), while tending towards its diminution in another (normative evaluation) as studied indifference serves to protect against the “disturbances and inner upheavals” which would otherwise be provoked by the “the shifts and contradictions in events” that characterise life in the metropolis (Simmel 1905, p. 12). So while the focus of this paper is necessarily limited for practical purposes, the scope of the proposed concepts is not: interruption events are produced with varying degree of frequency in different socio-technical environments and exercise a tendential power to curtail the scope of reflexivity by serving to interrupt extended internal conversation. Any particular interruption event is trivial, potentially serving to interrupt a single extended deliberation; it is rather their (patterned) multiplication over time which exercises a conditioning influence upon personal reflexivity[3]. The notion of a socio-technical environment invoked here is intended to reflect the involuntariness with which technology impacts upon our lives: changes in our environment occur because of other people’s uses of technologies and the behaviours facilitated by them, even if a given individual is not engaged in this way (Weller 2012, p. 126). The propensity of a socio-technical environment to multiply interruption events is in this sense non-voluntary: one can seek to evade the interruptions, incurring varying degrees of costs through doing so, but the tendency for interruption events to increase is a function of the distribution of technology throughout the environment and its embedding within social processes.

[1] An important question concerns the differences between interruptions in an experimental setting and those in everyday life. For instance, it seems plausible that lay normativity plays a role in intensifying or diminishing the cognitive costs of interruption events (e.g. the extent to which the task matters to the subjects concerned) in a way almost entirely excluded by the games constructed for purposes of experimental work.

[2] The widespread practice of the ‘second sleep’, leaving a period of wakefulness between two stretches of sleep, could be seen as a response to this pervasive lack of solitude, with Williams (2005) reporting that “Some, apparently, lay quietly and simply reflected on events of the preceding day or contemplated the day to come” or used the opportunity for prayer. The point can be overstated though, with others using the time for conversation or ‘intimate relations’.

[3] Often, as will be discussed, reflexively provoking responses to these recurrent interruptions to reflexivity.