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.




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.


Having a cup of tea with my friends at Curious Book Fans…

Return of the Bee

A beneficial dialogue. Return of the Bee (Photo credit: MightyBoyBrian)

…well, figuratively speaking, at least, and in keeping with all things British for this UK book review site. I was interviewed by one of my favorite reviewers about The Purana Qila Stories and it was nice to be made to think deeply about my writing. So often, what we do as writers is to tell our stories and sit back and wait for people’s reactions in the form of stars and 25 word reviews on Amazon. Those reviews, while helpful, don’t often add to the conversations that I think every writer would love to have about their writing: what worked or did not work and why. What themes we deliberately constructed, and what is the sub-text that we ourselves may have missed? What rings true in someone else’s experience and where we may need to make a course correction. As a literature major, I loved sitting in a professor’s snug office and pulling out the thematic threads of a novel or play; it is an honor to have a reader take the time and care to give the same consideration to your own work.

The author-reader relationship is symbiotic. Someone who knows me and read A Deconstructed Heart is a psychology major, and she said she could not help reading my book, wondering what part of me or my psyche was woven into the story. I could have asked her too, what part of her was integral to her reading of the story. Perhaps I still will; I think we could both learn a lot about ourselves in the process.