Information Processing and Pleasure

I’ve been reading Tyler Cowen’s provocative book The Age of the Infovore (a.k.a. Create Your Own Economy), which argues for the beneficial potential in seizing upon information organization as a form of pleasure itself rather than preparatory work that leads to pleasure. I’m somewhat skeptical of that; I tend to lament the time I spend sorting my library on iTunes instead of hearing the music. The need to organize and accumulate feels like a screen between me and the music; I can’t even hear it anymore until it’s organized, and I find myself listening as a way of processing to know how to sort a song, put it in its proper playlist, rather than to enjoy it in a more sensation-oriented way. I add so much metadata that it begins to obscure the data; the metapleasure cannibalizes from the pleasure I once derived from music. I end up just collecting music and information about it; much of it never gets played at all. And that gnaws at me at times. I fantasize about getting the “never played” playlist down to zero — sometimes I consider leaving my iTunes playing while I sleep.

Cowen asserts that the organization makes the music “actually sound better” — presumably that satisfaction from organizing can be enjoyed as sensuous. To me these are distinct satisfactions — the organization “pleasure” feels more like OCD compulsion, an anxious restlessness at everything not being in its proper place. Whereas getting lost in the music is something entirely different, a suspension of anxiety and the need to “get things done.” Perhaps the way I experience pleasure is no longer in sync with society — i.e., my generation was socialized in a disappeared age, and the structure of everyday life now demands a different kind of subjectivity, responsive to different modes of pleasure. I may be insufficiently autistic, as Cowen suggests the pleasure in ordering and processing is a quintessential autistic trait that is becoming advantageous in an infocentric economy.

Cowen argues that ordering can be a mode of relaxation, rather than a mere manifestation of the psychic pressure to be productive: “Ordering and manipulating information is useful, fun, alternately intense and calming, and it helps us plumb philosophical depths…. It is a path toward many of the best rewards in life and a path toward creating your economy and taking control of your own education and entertainment.” In other words, the infiltration of digitally mediated information processing into our daily practices gives a chance to experience more autonomy in our lives, provided we are content to live life at the level of “little bits,” as he calls them — memes, cultural fragments, decontextualized informational nuggets, isolated data points and so forth. Cowen makes this crucial point: When access is easier (which it has become, thanks to the internet), we tend to favor smaller pieces of information as a way of diversifying our options. This could be a matter of our inherent preference for novelty, though it may be a consequence of the values we inherit from our society, which privileges novelty over security, omnivorous dabbling over deep geekery. Either way, our internal filters are winnowing, such that we start to choke on anything more substantial than a tweet, become restless at the thought of assimilating larger, holistic hunks of culture. This seems to be a conceptual shift in how we approach experience, not as something overwhelming to lose ourselves in but as something to collect and integrate within ourselves as a series of discrete, manipulatable objects.

Social norms, biological imperatives and technological developments, then, have fragmented culture into ever smaller bits, as our identities have been cut free from traditional anchors. And experiences have been reified, in part because of the ease with which they can be digitized and distributed. As a result, we now carry the burden (or enjoy the freedom) of having to continually reassemble such fragments into something coherent and useful for ourselves — into our self-identity, into an amalgam that represents our interests and self-perceptions, as well as the image we want to present socially. The Internet “encourages us to pursue our identities and alliances based around very specific and articulable interests,” Cowen notes — they need to be simplified to match the bittiness of how we all have begun to see the world.

As Cowen points out, culture was once largely ordered for us collectively by the nature of the slow media through which it reached us. Songs came in a prescribed order on an album. K-tel picked the hits for Music Explosion. Now we do the selection and the arranging for ourselves. “A lot of the value production has been moved inside the individual human mind,” Cowen writes.

The key word is “individual,” though. These amalgamations are increasingly private and intensely personal, but nonetheless need social validation, which was intrinsic to the cultural order when it was mandated for everyone. When there were only three TV channels, everyone wanted to know who shot J.R. and no one needed to explain what they were talking about with that or why they cared. Now I would need to do a lot of explaining if I was intensely curious about who shot J.R. (which I am, and please don’t spoil it for me!).

The point is, we want our identities — our cultural investments — recognized; we want to be understood. So we end up having to explicate ourselves, “share” our private organizational schemes with ever more urgency on the host of new media forms designed primarily to facilitate this sort of communication — the communication of privately curated little bits organized into a hierarchy, commented upon, glossed in an effort to make their contingent coherence more broadly comprehensible so that we feel less alone, less like we treading water alone in a vast sea of information.

Our ongoing efforts to communicate the significance of our assemblages is itself a harvestable kind of information processing — it has personal value to us, making us feel understood and recognized. But it has monetary value to media companies and marketers as demographic data and semantic enrichment for their brands and products. Our quest for coherence and recognition and ontological security turns out to be very useful intellectual labor when resituated outside the crucible of our own identity.

Sometimes this seems very sinister to me, a monetization of our social being in a way that cuts us out of the rewards, even as it makes some “knowledge work” jobs expendable. It also leaves us with an identity that feels more fragile and reified at the same time; we are alienated from our immediate experience of ourselves and instead relate to ourselves as though our identity is a brand. It also means that the public sphere becomes “the social factory,” as the autonomistas say, a realm that blends production and consumption so seamlessly that leisure and for-itself social activity and pure sensual immersion become impossible. They become irrelevant, outmoded forms of pleasure — contemplation (decidedly and necessarily inefficient) is a casualty of the joys of efficient processing as pleasure. (Cowen calls this the Buddhist critique — ordering precludes a sense of oneness and harmony with the universe that Buddhists pursue. Nicholas Carr makes similar points about focus in The Shallows; our brains are being changed by internet use to disregard contemplation as joy.)

We are driven to be producing informational value and accepting that as pleasure, rather then engaging in the kinds of pleasure Bataille grouped under the notion of expenditure — waste, symbolic destruction, eliminating meanings, destructuration, entropic anarchy. That may be a good thing, unless you believe the need for “expenditure” builds up within a rationalized society and may explode into fascist movements if not ventilated. It seems that digitization means that our visions of excess are directed into a rage for ever larger collections of things (think hoarders) or ever more order.