prosaics of the digital life

In the best book yet written on my favorite twentieth-century thinker, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics, Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson describe the influence of Tolstoy on Bakhtin, especially Tolstoy’s emphasis on the cumulative effect of tiny decisions and thoughts on a person’s whole life. Here’s a key passage:

Levin in Anna Karenina and Pierre in War and Peace have both been troubled by the impossibility of grounding an ethical theory, and therefore of knowing for sure what is right and wrong. On the one hand, absolutist approaches not only proved inadequate to particular situations but also contradicted each other. On the other hand, relativism absurdly denied the meaningfulness of the question and led to a paralyzing indifference. After oscillating between absolutes and absences, they eventually recognize that their mistake lay in presuming that morality is a matter of applying rules and that ethics is a field of systematic knowledge. Both discover that they can make correct moral decisions without a general philosophy. Instead of a system, they come to rely on a moral wisdom derived from living rightly moment to moment and attending carefully to the irreducible particularities of each case.

I think we could say that “attending carefully to the irreducible particularities of each case” more or less is, or at the very least is an absolute precondition of, “living rightly moment to moment.” Ethical action requires such mindfulness, a point that was also essential to the thought of Simone Weil, for whom attentiveness (as she called it) was the touchstone of ethical, intellectual, and spiritual action alike.

We might also connect such mindfulness with my recent reflections on the problem of adherence: the failure to adhere to one’s determinations is at least in part a failure to be fully mindful about what one is doing.

It seems to me that most of our debates about recent digital technologies — about living in a connected state, about being endlessly networked, about becoming functional cyborgs — are afflicted by the same tendency to false systematization that, as Levin and Pierre discover, afflict ethical theory. Perhaps if we really want to learn to think well, and in the end act well, in a hyper-connected environment, we need to stop trying to generalize and instead become more attentive to what we are actually doing, minute by minute, and to the immediate consequences of those acts. (Only after rightly noting the immediate ones can we begin to grasp the more distant and extended ones.)

That is, we need more detailed descriptive accounts of How We Live Now — novelistic accounts, or what Bakhtin would call prosaic accounts. We need a prosaics of the digital life.


Happy Humphrey

A while back I was writing about the mysteries of adherence, that is, why some people manage to discipline themselves in ways that they need to while others do not. I want to return here to that theme to relate a fable — but a true fable.

The man in the photograph above is William Joseph Cobb, better known in his wrestling days as Happy Humphrey. He was a very famous wrestler, though perhaps not as famous as the almost-equally-massive Haystacks Calhoun, whom he sometimes wrestled. Happy Humphrey weighed as much as 900 pounds, and his weight proved not to be good for his health. After years of trying to lose weight, and in fear of imminent death from the heart condition that had forced his retirement from wrestling, he decided to turn himself over to researchers at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. That is, they rather than he became responsible for his adherence to a diet.

For two years, from 1963 to 1965, Humphrey lived at the clinic, where the researchers confined him to 1000 calories per day. They cycled him through high-protein, high-carb, and high fat diets, and came to the conclusion that he lost pretty much the same about of weight on each, though he lost more actual fat on the high-protein diet, and felt much better also. At the end of the two years Humphrey, who had weighed over 800 pounds when he checked into the clinic, weighed in at a sleek 232.

It’s important to note that during those two years Humphrey was completely confined to the clinic, and remained under supervision at all times. Also, by the time Humphrey died from a heart attack in 1989, he once more weighed over 600 pounds.

Something else caught my eye: it appears that when Humphrey left the clinic he stayed in Augusta and worked at a shoe-repair shop. Some of the websites I consulted in reading about Humphrey say that he was originally from Macon, Georgia, so he wasn’t too far from home territory, but I still can’t help wondering whether he wanted to remain near the place and the people who had done for him what he couldn’t do for himself. As though some aura of will-power lingered in the neighborhood.

And I also can’t help wondering how Humphrey felt about leaving the clinic. Was he desperate to recapture the freedoms of ordinary life? Or did he miss the peacefulness of an environment in which vital decisions were made for him? Did he ever long to return? Did he ever ask to return? How “happy” was he, really? And when?

enough about me

So here’s what I do, in the digital realm, to limits the powers of intermittent reinforcement and increase my powers of adherence: when I have work to do on my computer, I either disable all notifications or shut down social media (Twitter, email, IM) clients altogether.

Does this work? Variably well, and the key variable is how much I enjoy the task I need to work on. If I’m working on a book or article, I usually get sufficiently absorbed in the task that I forget social media. But if I’m, say, grading papers — which I do on my computer: I have students submit their essays as PDFs — then I get twitchy: I’m often tempted to check email or Twitter. In fact, I sometimes think I would do better if I just had the push notifications enabled, so then I would only be interrupted when something actually happened, instead of interrupting myself by wondering whether something has happened. But I’ve noticed that when I leave notifications on I get pinged just when I am actually concentrating on what a student is arguing — so no, turning them off is the best option.

I also have my computer set to auto-hide all applications that are not currently active, so when I’m writing my text editor is the only thing I can see, when I’m grading my PDF viewer is the only thing I can see, and so on.

So that’s my practice. I kind of enjoy talking about these things: productivity strategies and all that. But maybe that’s because those conversations keep me from having to think about more important and less pleasant things. Consider, for instance, a notable fact selected from the account I’ve just given: how much easier it is for me to concentrate on my own writing, my own thoughts, than on my responsibility to help my students develop their thoughts. It’s not especially discomfiting to investigate and critique what Cory Doctorow has called “your computer’s ecosystem of interruption technologies”; it’s really discomfiting to realize how bored and distracted I can become when it’s not all about ME. And if I find myself less plagued by distraction than many others I know, perhaps that’s not because I am more disciplined, but because I am blessed in having a good deal of work to do that I really, deeply enjoy.


Now I want to take the thoughts from my last post a little further.

Just as it is true in one sense to say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” though only at the cost of ignoring how much easier it is to kill someone if you’re holding a loaded gun than if you can’t get one, so also I don’t want my previous post to be read as simply saying “Tech doesn’t distract people, people distract themselves.” I am easily distracted, I want to be distracted, but that’s easier for me to accomplish when I have a cellphone in my hand or lots notifications enabled — thanks, Growl! — on my laptop.

Still, I really think we should spend more time thinking about what’s within rather than what’s without — the propensities themselves rather than what enables and intensifies them. Self-knowledge is good.

And along these lines I find myself thinking about a fascinating and provocative article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that says, basically, it’s time to stop studying the effects of various diets and debating about which ones are best because, frankly, there ain’t a dime’s worth of difference among them: “The long history of trials showing very modest differences suggests that additional trials comparing diets varying in macronutrient content most likely will not produce findings that would significantly advance the science of obesity.”

In short, such comparative studies are wasting the researchers’ time, because while countless studies have not told us anything conclusively about which diets are best they have told us conclusively that whatever diet you choose the thing that really matters is whether you’re able to achieve the discipline to stick with it. Therefore, “Progress in obesity management will require greater understanding of the biological, behavioral, and environmental factors associated with adherence to lifestyle changes including both diet and physical activity.”

Adherence: that’s what matters in achieving weight loss and more general increases in health. Do you actually follow your diet? Do you actually keep to your exercise regimen? And that’s also what’s most mysterious: Why are some people able to adhere to their plans while others (most of us) are not? This, the authors suggest, is what we should be studying.

The same is true for technological addictions. Some people use apps like Freedom to try to break their addictions — which is great as long as they remember to turn the app on and resist the temptation to override it. Jonathan Franzen uses superglue to render his computer un-networkable — which is great as long as he doesn’t hunt down another computer or keep a smartphone within reach. Evgeny Morozov locks his phone and wireless router in a safe so he can get some work done — which is great as long as he actually does that when he needs to.

In all these cases, what people are trying to do — and it’s an intelligent thing to attempt — is to create friction, clumsiness, a set of small obstacles that separate the temptation to seek positive reinforcement from the giving in to that temptation: time to take a couple of deep breaths, time to reconsider, time to remind themselves what they want to achieve. But in the end they still have to resist. They have to adhere to their commitments.

Which takes us back to the really key question that the JAMA article points us to: whether it’s diet or exercise or checking Twitter, why is adherence so difficult? Why do most of us adhere weakly, like Post-It notes, rather than firmly, like Jonathan Franzen’s superglued ethernet port?

I’ll have more to say about this in another post.

the real enemy

Rebecca Solnit is right when she points to good things lost in a technological rush, lost by most and sought again by at least a few:

There are also places where human contact and continuity of experience hasn’t been so ruined. I visit New Orleans regularly, where the old leisurely enjoyment of mingling with strangers in the street and public venues – where music is often live and people dance to it, not just listen to it sitting down, where people sit by preference out front and greet strangers with endearments – forms a dramatic contrast with the Bay Area where contact with strangers is likely to be met (at least among the white middle class) with a puzzled and slightly pained expression that seems to say you’ve made a mistake. If you’re even heard, since earphones – they still look to me like some sort of medical equipment, an IV drip for noise – are ubiquitous, so that on college campuses, say, finding someone who can lend you an ear isn’t easy. The young are disappearing down the rabbit hole of total immersion in the networked world, and struggling to get out of it.

Getting out of it is about slowness, and about finding alternatives to the alienation that accompanies a sweater knitted by a machine in a sweatshop in a country you know nothing about, or jam made by a giant corporation that has terrible environmental and labour practices and might be tied to the death of honeybees or the poisoning of farmworkers. It’s an attempt to put the world back together again, in its materials but also its time and labour. It’s both laughably small and heroically ambitious.

Sherry Turkle was also onto some of these important issues when she published Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other last year. And Nick Carr covered these, and some others, in The Shallows in 2010. Winifred Gallagher also when she published Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life in 2009. And Maggie Jackson in Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age in 2008. Bill McKibben was even right about many of these very points when he gave us The Age of Missing Information in 1992. (Modesty forbids my mentioning anyone else who may have written about living in an “age of distraction”.)

So, as I said in my previous post, one problem with Solnit’s essay is that it shows no awareness than anyone else has written about this issues, even though it’s one of the most written-about issues of our time. Solnit is usually such a sharp observer and surprising thinker that this re-presenting of the utterly familiar is uncharacteristic of her.

But I think there’s another problem as well, and it’s a problem shared by almost all of us who think and write about these things — and I say “us” because I include myself. We are inclined to attribute our scattered minds to living in a “digital age” or a “networked age,” and while the latter term is more relevant than the former neither gets at the key issue.

Now, what I’m about to say isn’t new either, but it’s a point that I think is grossly under-emphasized: the primary challenge we face is our extreme vulnerability to intermittent reinforcement. The same impulse affects the person who glances at her phone every thirty seconds and the person who can’t resist the allure of the one-armed bandit: This time it just might happen.

If we think that out problem is our digital gadgets, we’ll be inclined to a digital dualism that can lead us to think that if we just escape or set aside our gadgets we’ll be fine. But that’s too superficial a response. Intermittent reinforcement can overmaster us anywhere, and has always had that power: think of the characters in Victorian novels whose whole lives for a time can become little more than waiting for the post.

So let’s think more about the powers of intermittent reinforcement, and about the complex ways that those powers are related to the digital and the networked. Look for more posts on these matters.