Distraction and connectivity: the unexamined life


Unplugged - no computer, no internet, possible?

Unplugged – no computer, no internet, possible? (Photo credit: photosteve101)

I was reading the New Yorker and found an article that resonated with me, about the value of boredom vs. distraction (Only Disconnect by Eugeny Morozov).

It was an interesting discussion of the work of different scholars from the early 20th century to the modern-day about the perils of distraction in urban life; a summary of Dave Egger’s latest fiction, The Circle, which is about a cult-like technology giant that erodes privacy and a short review of three nonfiction books that discuss the impact of digital technology on the issues of attention and distraction. (The Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, by Douglas Rushkoff; The Distraction Addiction, by Alex Soonjug-Kim Pang and Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information, by Malcolm McCullough.)

Morozov’s main point is that creating the kind of society we want to live in is a political act, and compares it to the anti-noise lobby of the early twentieth century. If we do not want to be bombarded with smart technology at every step, we should advocate for ‘quiet’ spaces, in our homes and in our towns. He argues that we should not treat boredom and distraction as being at odds with one another, they can be reconciled by the considered and appropriate designation of space for one or the other. He discriminates between healthy boredom and “mediated” boredom, arguing that connectivity and digital distractions do not actually resolve boredom; we have simply lost the ability to recognize we are still bored when we are being bombarded with visuals and audio clips. He quotes Siegfried Kracauer, who championed “radical boredom” for individuals to feel wholly human and present. Kracauer’s essay (published in Zeitung in the 1920’s) extols the virtue of certain activities such as dance and travel to get us closer to “authentic rapture within the inauthentic domain.”

I did not agree with everything in Morozov’s essay; he’s right about “mediated boredom”, but he is dismissive about the role neuroscience plays in modern distraction– I think it is important to note the physiological process going on when digital links and page tabs light up the ephemeral pleasure-reward circuit of our brains. Surely that helps to explain why we willingly stay in the lab-rat mazes of cyberspace for so long and so often (checking our smart phones over 150 times a day on average). Full disclosure: I visited Facebook three times already today.

Morozov suggests that diverse experiences might help us break the hold that connectivity has on us, but he does not go beyond Kracauer’s suggestion of travel and dance. I would like that thought developed further. Why those activities and why not others? Writing? Painting? Gardening? What is the solution to hyper connectivity in a world where we can take our smart phones everywhere we go and check our computers to learn how to go about many of our favorite hobbies? If you think I’m exaggerating, you should have been there when the college guide laughed at me, when I toured a university library recently and asked where the books were. Should we pursue body-centered and multi-sensory experiences to resist the pull of the digital world, or is the cure simply any activity that pushes away the demands of other drains on our attention and allows us to think? Morozov himself locks up his phone in a safe for a certain time every day.

I do like Morozov’s idea that we must redetermine our relationship to time, as well as to space and cognition, to avoid the tyranny of the constant “now”. Unlike the Zen philosophy of being in the moment, our slavish devotion to “breaking news” and “latest trends” and “real-time” actually disconnect us from history, from a perspective of our place in relationship to the past.

I think these questions are worth considering, since we are hurtling towards a fully-digitized life experience at break-neck speed; we are already archivers of our own experience for the consumption of others in our social networking sites. I am not a Luddite, nor elitist, but I find it disconcerting that we don’t often have time to stop and think, particularly as regards the role digital technology has in shaping our modern life and whether or not we could or should do things differently.

Only a few thinkers are charting the way for us, and unfortunately they do not make the wide ripples that a mainstream sociologist, like Malcolm Gladwell might. Jaron Lanier‘s You are not a Gadget is remarkable in its breakdown of the digital revolution on middle-class economics and how we all, as consumers whose lives are being affected by digital technology, must advocate for the society we really want, before it is determined for us. I have not read Who Owns the Future, but that is the next book on my reading list.

Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I would not go that far, but I would certainly recommend that we examine this life and think about how we really want to live.




The last word: learning from your readers

I had another book club for A Deconstructed Heart and had a delightful afternoon with a great group of women. It always surprises me how different readers can interpret my book differently and come to wonderfully opposing points of view about the same characters. The whole experience was an interesting exchange, where I learned as much as I shared.

I was honored to be asked to name some of my favorite fiction (not my own) and to have those titles written down for future reference by one or two of the attendees. There’s nothing I love more than to share my love of really good writing, and I steered the reader towards Hilary Mantel‘s Wolf Hall and David Mitchell‘s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

I told the group how much I personally don’t typically get into book clubs since I love to follow the meanderings of my own inclination (although I could make the Desi Lit Book Club an exception). One attendee told me how she loves book clubs because she would never normally pick up some of the books otherwise, and she loves to find the unexpected, to be shown a new perspective, and I realized what a great attitude that evinces. May we always be open to learning something new and having the humility to allow someone else to show us the way. This person is a remarkable example of living well, and the key clearly lies in her desire to always be open to new knowledge.

I was also asked what I learned from the process of writing my book and, until that moment, I had not reflected on what the act of writing had taught me. I realized how much I learned to appreciate my parents’ sacrifice to build a life for our family in England, and that the lesson was a gift. We take our existence and the facts of our upbringing for granted, and rarely acknowledge that there was a time and reality before us for our parents. Writing my book brought me to the understanding of just how much my parents’ immigrant generation had to let go, in order to give me the best chance in life. I’m glad I took the time to reflect on that sacrifice while I can still talk to my elders, and sharing my book with them has been deeply gratifying.

All in all, it was a really charming event and an afternoon I’ll remember fondly. Writing is a solitary act of arrogance, an omnipotent shaping of reality by the impulses of imagination. Readers make the act humane once more, through conversation, connection and communion with the book and with one another. It was a privilege to attend the process–a humbling and enlightening experience, a breaking of intellectual bread with other lively and insightful minds.


Reading one another: the insights of literary fiction

If you’ve ever been puzzled at the success of the latest “it” book and wondered what all the fuss is about or been saddened that no-one you know is as excited about the latest Peter Carey book as you are, you may be rattling about like a solitary dried pea in the lonely world of literary fiction love. It’s cold there, but still gratifying. You can always tell yourself that you are one of the cool kids. Well, the other day, I found another consolation for loving literary fiction. According to a recent study by two scholars at the New School for Social Research, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, the complexities and ambiguities of literary fiction make readers better able to guess at the motivations, emotions and beliefs of the people around them. The study revealed that this benefit does not come with reading popular fiction, given its reliance on stereotypical and uncomplicated characters. Another study reveals that literary fiction strengthens the reader’s ability to tolerate uncertainty, a factor that allows one to think creatively and absorb contradictory ideas at the same time.

I have a profound admiration for scientists, and invite you to take a minute to read both articles about the respective studies, to dip into the world of ‘knowing’ and ‘quantifying’, before you sink your nose back into that book and are back to wandering (and wondering) once more.

Salon: Jonathan Franzen can help you read people.

Pacific Standard: Reading literature opens minds.