less rolling, less tumbling, more mindfulness

In my last post I explained that I’m thinking of moving away from my Tumblr because its frictionlessness, its ease of posting and re-posting, has become somewhat problematic for me. And I said there was another reason for moving away from it, but in fact I have at least two.

In my view, the number one thing that all the major social media do wrong is this: metrics. Follower and friend counts. I would greatly prefer not to know how many Twitter or Tumblr followers I have, and were I on Facebook I wouldn’t want to know how many “friends.” But the world of social media is a world of counting. The whole business reminds me of what Auden called “Infernal Science”:

One of our greatest spiritual dangers is our fancy that the Evil One takes a personal interest in our perdition. He doesn’t care a button about my soul, any more than Don Giovanni cared a button about Donna Elvira’s body. I am his “one-thousand-and-third-in-Spain.”

One can conceive of Heaven having a Telephone Directory, but it would have to be gigantic, for it would include the Proper name and address of every electron in the Universe. But Hell could not have one, for in Hell, as in prison and the army, its inhabitants are identified not by name but by number. They do not have numbers, they are numbers.

And once you start conceiving of your online social world as countable, it’s hard, as many, many people have noted, not to make decisions based on what will boost those numbers. Since the major social media platforms don’t even allow the possibility of hiding the numbers — it has probably never occurred to any of the people who work for such sites that a person might not want that data — you either have to find a way to ignore the numbers or stop using the service.

Which leads me to my second reason for moving away from Tumblr: the value of owning your turf — your turf also, not incidentally, being a place where you can take no notice of metrics. Thus Frank Chimero on changes he’s making in his online presence, based on, among other things, his realization that his being spread so thin online is making him grumpy:

While this callousness and irritability might be caused by the traits of certain environments online, it’s also just an attitude, so it can be modified. I can adjust how I look at the newness, change how I interact with these venues, and try to make a quieter, warmer, and slower place for my things. That’s good for the audience (I think), and good for my work and the things I share. You need to build a safe place so people don’t need to be on guard and stingy with their attention. If you can do that, we all get a breather.

It seems the best way for me to do this is to step out of the stream and “build my own house,” just like those architects. I don’t have to simplify or crop or be pulled out of context (unless I want that), which hopefully produces a fuller picture of who I am, what I like, and what I value. I’m returning to a personal site, which flips everything on its head. Rather than teasing things apart into silos, I can fuse together different kinds of content. Instead of having fewer sections to attend to distracted and busy individuals, I’ll add more (and hopefully introduce some friction, complexity, and depth) to reward those who want to invest their time. I won’t use analytics — actually, I won’t measure at all. What would I do with that data anyway? In this case, it’s just more noise. The singular thread that runs through everything is only “because I like it.”

So, I’m doubling down on my personal site in 2014. In light of the noisy, fragmented internet, I want a unified place for myself — the internet version of a quiet, cluttered cottage in the country.

This sounds great to me. So all I have to do is to figure out how to do this in my own life. I know I’ll be here; I know I’ll keep my Gospel of the Trees site up and running; but everything else is now negotiable. I will almost certainly do any personal blogging and posting of images, quotes, and the like to my own turf. Maybe I’ll even move my research notes from Pinboard to there, or move them offline entirely. Maybe I’ll make my Twitter account private, or create a new private one and leave the public one just for announcements and links.

It’s time for more mindfulness. And mindfulness can’t be done quickly.

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.