Culture and perpetual triage

by Rob Horning

25 July 2006


I’m still searching for ways to clarify this idea of thinking through the network, this feeling that the Internet is suddenly a prerequisite for any meaningful thought or conversation. Commenter NotPhil helpfully suggested that when the latest thing is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail—thus the advent of blogging leads to every idea suddenly seeming blog-sized. Kyril, another commenter, wonders if Internet-based identity continually needs to be reasserted in order to exist, that the sudden wide-exposure theoretically available to us online has the effect of making us acutely conscious of the possibility of our vanishing altogether. In other words, a new way to feel insecure and incomplete. I wondered in the previous post whether blogging and online presence weren’t simply plays for institutional power despite the trappings of democracy—the low bar (Internet connection, minimal computer savvy) to entry into the discourse.  Perhaps it is all symptomatic of something futurist Linda Stone postulates called continuous partial attention:

To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention—CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.
We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention. This artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of multi-tasking.

Such behavior seems a response to the awareness that we can always be missing out on something that is as close and inaccessible as our computer (when the power is not out)—an eBay auction, a communique from a paramour, a forex trade, a breaking story, more funny videos of skateboarding accidents, more pictures of naked women with balloons, or whatever. The response to the Internet’s inexhaustible opportunities for distraction or engagement or profit can be this fragmenting attention Stone describes (“a crisis management mode”), reacting the flood of culture with perpetual triage, trying to keep up with the categorization and tagging and prioritizing and blogging and everything else we want to do with the tantalizingly malleable data stream. At first it seems the inverse of the fundamental economic problem of scarcity—it seems as though we are being short-circuited by the sudden encroachment of the infinite into our minds, which are hard-wired to deal with limited supplies, to collect things, and to demarcate and taxonomize. But it’s not that the problem of scarcity has gone away; it’s just that for information and entertainment scarcity has shifted from the external world to the internal—we have a scarcity of attention to pay, and it’s a deficit that has overtaken us quite suddenly, in the grand scheme of things. (This places Stone’s concern in line with Michael Goldhaber’s notion of the attention economy.) We are not used to bumping up against the limit of our attention span, because for much of humanity’s existence as a species, it seemed an unreachable horizon because the scope of most individual lives was so narrow.  It used to take a long time to be confronted with the extent of what one would never know.

Perhaps attention deficits are perhaps better understood as sensory overloads. The brain’s throughput rate can’t keep up with broadband. So when I feel compelled to think in terms of the network, it some attempt to reassert (an illusory) mastery over my attention deficit, to achieve a sense of greater throughput, to be conscious of having processed more data, of having capitalized on a sufficient amount of the endless stream—to feel as though I am floating on it rather than drowning beneath it.

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