In his superb From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner vividly describes The Whole Earth Catalog and the horizon it opened up for many of its readers. From loc 1212:

For many, the Catalog provided a first, and sometimes overwhelming, glimpse of the New Communalists’ intellectual world. Gareth Branwyn, for instance, a journalist who later wrote for Wired magazine, zine, recalled the day in 1971 when he saw his first copy of the Catalog: “I was instantly enthralled. I’d never seen anything like it. We lived in a small redneck neck town in Virginia-people didn’t think about such things as `whole systems’ and `nomadics’ and `Zen Buddhism.’… The Whole Earth Catalog changed my life. It was my doorway to Bucky Fuller, Gregory Bateson, whole systems, communes, and lots of other things that formed a foundation tion to a world model I’ve been building ever since.

This is a conduit to variety (where to go, what to do and who to be) which had an enormous direct and indirect cultural impact. What interests me is the reception of this variety by individuals: how did it change lives? How did it lead people to conceive of their present differently? How did it lead them to imagine different futures?

These are subtle questions which resist capture through quantitative measures, representing personal transformations which the individual themselves might not always narrativize in a straightforward manner. But conduits for variety is a concept I’m using to conceive of how media forms contribute to change in individual lives, including the social change ensuing from their aggregated actions as well as any subsequent participation in collective change.

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 few months ago, I was surprised to see an advert for a Christian dating website on the tube. I just discovered, reading Arlie Hochschild’s The Outsourced Self, quite how widespread this is. From pg 38:

Given the profits to be made, it comes as no surprise to see the current explosion of online dating sites:, craigslist, Yahoo! Personals,, Matchmaker, LoveHappens, GreatExpectations, OKCupid, TheRightOne, PerfectMatch, and more. Sites devoted to matching daters by religion—including Catholic Mingle, AdventistSingles, LDS Mingle—are now commonplace. As are sites focused on particular ethnicity or race, such as AsianSinglesConnection, Filipina Heart, LatinSinglesConnection, JDate, or InterracialMatch. Others address elderly daters: Silver Singles, Prime Singles, and Senior Friendfinder. Still others specify levels of intelligence (GoodGenes), education (TheRightStuff), occupation (FarmsOnly, MilitaryCupid), sexual orientation (GayCupid, PinkCupid, Adam4Adam), or disabilities (DeafSingles Connection).

Evidence suggests these platforms do not create the impulse in question but they must surely increase the extent to which it is acted upon by normalising assortativity and making it much easier to achieve in practice.

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.

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.

Throughout my thesis I use the term ‘exploration’ as a short hand to designate a rather precise process. I’m trying to conceptualise a particular sort of biographical process, which in spite of its empirical variability shares an underlying structure in which the relation between concerns and context lead a person to look beyond that context in order to find a sustainable and satisfying way of manifesting those concerns. In such a movement, an inability to find a mode of life in which they feel compelled to invest themselves leads them to look beyond the boundaries of their context in pursuit of something ‘more’. Crucially, the constitution of this ‘more’ may be utterly opaque to them. Individuals can search for ‘more’ without being able to articulate what this ‘more’ is. My contention is that this is a purposive activity which is nonetheless inarticulate. People search for new things to know, new things to do and new things to be without being clear about what exactly it is they’re looking for.

It’s in this sense that I’ve been thinking about the spatial distribution of variety. How is variety, which I’m understanding generically as opportunities (i.e. possibilities to do/know/be X which are foreclosed elsewhere), distributed in a geographical sense? Through asking this question we can begin to map a micro-sociological analysis of individual biographies (of the sort alluded to above) onto macro-sociological analysis of the mobility patterns of particular cohorts within broader populations. There was an interesting article in the Guardian recently which left these issues newly at the forefront of my mind:

Monday’s Centre for Cities report starkly illustrated the extent of the brain drain taking place in this country as waves of gifted young people shun what is somewhat patronisingly referred to as “the regions” in order to build a career in the capital. According to the centre, a third of all people aged between 22 and 30 who leave their home towns move to the south, most of them never to return.

I’m one of the exceptions. After six months of signing on while avoiding eye contact, I now have a job that is stimulating, rewarding, offers some hope of progression and, most amazingly of all, is in Birmingham – not London.

I work as a university researcher and so come into contact with bright young people regularly. The students, artists, curators and designers I meet are dynamic, imaginative and energetic. They dream, think differently and make “scenes” (in a good way).

It is inspiring, but it also makes the report’s findings all the more worrying. What does the future hold for cities such as Birmingham if the best and the brightest continue to be sucked into the capital? As the authors of the report point out, compared to other European countries such as Germany, Britain’s financial, cultural and political hubs are already disproportionately concentrated in London. A rich city is going to get richer while the rest are left to stagnate.

Some people will stay and do what they can. But it is not enough to rely on youthful vigour. Faced with a choice between the dole and a zero-hour “McJob” outside London or the possibility of a career in the capital, graduates are doing the only thing they can do: migrating south.

Things clearly need to change. My own university does good work in providing paid internships, artists-in-residence posts and other initiatives to help give young people a real stake in the city. But the problems are vast – they are structural and, as such, require intervention from local and national government. So here are a few ideas.

Local authorities and other landlords outside London should be compelled to make any shop that has stood empty for more than two months available via an application process to students free of charge. This would help break down the distinction between “gown” and “town” and provide a platform for innovation for young people with ideas.

Bodies such as the Arts Council should offer a special fund, open only to first-time applicants under 30 who have an idea for an activity taking place outside London. A young people’s commissioner with real powers should be established in every city and, importantly, it should be a recent graduate who fills the role. And we should relocate some of the key British institutions away from London to other parts of the country.

I agree wholeheartedly with this analysis. In a sense, it’s a much more straight forward way of saying what I’ve articulated in the sometimes cumbersome language of relational realism. Macro-social trends which engender a concentration of variety in certain geographical regions and within certain social milieux (there are far more things to do, to know and to be in Manchester than there are in Rochdale) are mediated at the level of lived experience by action which aims, in various ways, to circumvent the contraction of variety in other areas as individuals try to shape a life for themselves, with the resources which individuals are able to deploy in making such moves themselves being unevenly distributed. So far from being a retreat from macro-social analysis, working at the level of individual biography offers a really interesting sort of traction on macro-social processes – these are inflected through individual biographies with all manner of aggregative consequences (the sheer weight of numbers doing X, Y, Z) and emergent consequences (acting collectively in response to convergent circumstances).

This is how I understand the linkage between biography and history, between private troubles and public issues, or in other words what I think the sociological imagination looks like from the vantage point of the particular sort of critical realism I espouse.

I’ve recently been reading Magoroh Maruyama’s writing on the second cybernetics and I’m quite taken with it. There’s a context to his work which I only dimly understand, given my lack of grounding in the first cybernetics, though I’m still finding his writing extremely thought-provoking. One of the key themes seems to be the critique of an exclusive focus within the first cybernetics on deviation-counteracting processes and the self-equilibrating systems which they engender. In contrast Maruyama is interested in the role of deviation-amplifying causal relationships in shaping systems over time. This is the example which has really caught my imagination:

Development of a city in an agricultural plain may be understood with the same principle. At the beginning, a large plain is entirely homogeneous as to its potentiality for agriculture. By some chance an ambitious farmer opens a farm at a spot on it. This is the initial kick. Several farmers follow the example and several farms are established. One of the farmers opens a tool shop. Then this tool shop becomes a meeting place of farmers. A food stand is established next to the tool shop. Gradually a village grows. The village facilitates the marketing of the agricultural products, and more farms flourish around the village. Increased agricultural activity necessitates development of industry in the village, and the village grows into a city.

This is a very familiar process. But there are a few important theoretical implications in such a process. On what part of the entire plain the city starts growing depends on where accidentally the initial kick occurred – The first farmer could have chosen any spot on the plain, since the plain was homogeneous. But once he has chosen a spot, a city grows from that spot, and the plain becomes inhomogeneous. If a historian should try to find a geographical “cause” which made this spot a city rather than some other spots, he will fail to find it in the initial homogeneity of the plain. Nor can the first farmer be credited with the establishment of the city. The secret of the growth of the city is in the process of deviation-amplifying mutual positive feedback networks rather than in the initial condition or in the initial kick. This process, rather than the initial condition, has generated the complexly structured city. It is in this sense that the deviation-amplifying mutual causal process is called “morphogenesis.

But this has also left me thinking about reflexivity and subjectivity in these terms. Particularly in terms of how the preponderance of certain forms of reflexivity will tend to engender morphostatic responses to relations and institutions, while the preponderance of others will tend to engender morphogenetic ones. On this view, we could think of practitioners of certain forms of reflexivity as vectors of deviance-amplification. I’m trying to think this through at present with my PhD data chapters in terms of the implications which a developing mode of reflexivity has for the significant others of the practitioner. What influence does their growing heterogeneity have on those they stand in relation to? I think they will tend to be a source of new variety (new things to do, to think and to be) in a way which it feels important for me to get a better handle on.