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.

Solnit’s nostalgia

Rebecca Solnit writes,

Those mail and newspaper deliveries punctuated the day like church bells. You read the paper over breakfast. If there were developments you heard about them on the evening news or in the next day’s paper. You listened to the news when it was broadcast, since there was no other way to hear it. A great many people relied on the same sources of news, so when they discussed current events they did it under the overarching sky of the same general reality. Time passed in fairly large units, or at least not in milliseconds and constant updates. A few hours wasn’t such a long time to go between moments of contact with your work, your people or your trivia.

You opened the mail when you came home from work, or when it arrived if you worked from home. Some of the mail was important and personal, not just bills. It was exciting to get a letter: the paper and handwriting told you something, as well as the words….

Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the unnuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.

Solnit is one of the finest writers of her generation, so it’s a bit sad to see her recycling these tired complaints. Even if every word of her essay is true, it has been said thousands of times already. Sven Birkerts got it all into The Gutenberg Elegies in 1994, and since then people have just been doodling variations on his themes.

But here’s the problem I have with all screeds of this particular type. If you happen to be old enough to remember the days of letter-writing that Solnit limns so nostalgically, I invite you to perform the following thought-experiment:

  • Estimate the number of letters you wrote in a given year.
  • Estimate the number of letters you meant to write, planned to write, knew you ought to write, and yet never quite got around to writing.
  • Calculate the ratio of those numbers.

In Solnit’s imagination, every brief email or telegraphic text we write today would thirty years ago or more have been a letter. But a moment’s reflection shows that that’s not true. People send emails who never would have gotten around to writing letters or even making phone calls; people (mostly younger ones) who find email too frictiony a medium might send a hundred texts a day. If we’re going to understand how these technologies are changing us, we need to make the right comparisons: not one long hand-written letter to one brief email, but one long hand-written letter to several emails, or dozens of texts exchanged with multiple people in a given day.

An average twenty-year-old today writes far, far more to his or her friends than the average twenty-year-old of any time in human history. His or her experience is remarkable primarily for how textual it is, how many written words comprise it. We should start by acknowledging that fact, and if we go on to form a critique, we should have a clearer-eyed view of the past as well.

All that said, there are some good points about distraction and the alternatives to distraction in Solnit’s essay; I’ll try to write about those another time. But the nostalgia here is really problematic.