Trying to avoid distraction

by Rob Horning

12 January 2009


Nicholas Carr, building from my post about dilettantism and incorporating an analysis of the Clash’s “Complete Control” to boot, draws this pertinent conclusion: “Distraction is the permanent end state of the perfected consumer, not least because distraction is a state that is eminently programmable.”

That seems right to me. The implication is that the level of our interest in our amusements, and worse, in what we may consider to be our life’s work, has its limits set by the sort of society we live in—the tendency to become distracted is not some personal failing or the indicator of someone’s weak will, but the accomplishment of a bundle of associated forces that help naturalize certain consumerist preferences. Our susceptibility to boredom is “programmable” through the amount of stuff thrown at us and the amount of stuff a “normal” with-it person is assumed to know about and the various ways cultural ignorance can be exposed. (Hence the useless entertainment quizzes and trivia contests and the like. These seem innocuous enough, but they help calibrate our boredom, suggesting what the breadth and depth of our knowledge should be.) Fortunately, we are not yet “perfected” consumers in this fashion, but—if you’ll forgive a lapse into teleology—that’s the goal a consumerist economy hopes to accomplish. That trend is palpable (though perhaps that is because those resisting it do not register, have no way of communicating their resistance to a hypermediated and hyperaccelerated society without acceding to its terms). If we are not vigilant, our attention span will continue to shrink, and the “helpful” tools to force more and more material through that tiny pinhole of focus will proliferate. (Just as road-building worsens traffic problems, media-management and organization tools tend to exacerbate our attention problems. I spend as much time editing metadata as I do concentrating on music I’m listening to.)

Impelled by a sense that we must streamline our consumption and absorption of information and experiential opportunity (a need fomented by media technology, which both extends marketing’s reach and expands the amount of information we can readily acquire), we end up going for quantity over quality, the superficial over the complex, and regard convenience as an abstract good rather than being defined in relation to some other activity. Convenience only speeds our pursuit of more convenience. In this, we come to resemble our society’s economic system, which seeks profit for its own sake. To keep up the incidental Marx references: in The Limits to Capital David Harvey points to this relevant passage in Capital:

The simple circulation of commodities - selling in order to buy - is a means of carrying out a purpose unconnected with circulation, namely, the appropriation of use-values, the satisfaction of wants. The circulation of money as capital is, on the contrary, an end in itself, for the expansion of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement. The circulation of capital has therefore no limits.
As the conscious representative of this movement, the possessor of money becomes a capitalist. His person, or rather his pocket, is the point from which the money starts and to which it returns. The expansion of value…becomes his subjective aim, and it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of his operations, that he functions as a capitalist, that is, as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will. Use-values must therefore never be looked upon as the real aim of the capitalist; neither must the profit on any single transaction. The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at.

Basically, the economic roles we fulfill—for most of us, that means “consumer”—shape the horizon of our subjective aims while serving the underlying function of reproducing the existing system. That means embodying the restless pursuit of novelty, at least to the degree to which we want to be at harmony with the culture we live in. We become consumerism “personified and endowed with a consciousness and a will.”

As a result, it’s hard to avoid the feeling of missing out on something, no matter how into whatever it is we actually are doing. Alternatives are always filtering in to taunt and tempt us, and we hold our ability to become absorbed, to achieve “flow,” in abeyance, waiting for the diversion.

The urge to devise a scorekeeping system for our consumption grows as we seek a way to manage it all and compare what we’ve done to some standard—to restore the meaning that’s lost with our failure to become absorbed and committed to something. So if there is no way to keep score, then the activity can seem pointless. (A commenter to my previous post made that point about Guitar Hero, adding that this aligns our personal pleasure seeking with corporate notions of total quality management. If there were only some way I could attach some kind of scoreboard to my guitar when practicing scales, maybe I would do it more.) For example, I start to fetishize the number of posts I plow through in a day in my RSS reader; if the unread posts figure reaches 500, I go into orange alert, and start reading faster, skimming more, leaping past the longish posts and the papers and such for BoingBoing and Metafilter links.

Consequently, we end up having to set up defenses against distraction. Writer Cory Doctorow, a contributor, offers this compendium of advice for getting writing done. The advice all seems sound if not ultimately somewhat tautological—the best way to avoid distraction is to not allow yourself to be distracted by bells and whistles on word processors or by instant messaging or the infinite research possibilities online. Such resistance makes sense if we can muster it, but it can feel bad, like stifled curiosity. The problem is that in our culture, curiosity has been co-opted, inverted, made to function as its opposite—distraction, novelty for its own sake. The growing burden on us is to enforce rigor on our curiosity or exercise the discipline to ignore the would-be forbidden fruit.


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