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.


  1. sounds right. occurs to me that my own relationship to tumblr, etc. and their reward system — ah, new "like," new follower — is different from my son's relationship to computer games, in which he is in rapt attention.

    same gadget (the machine), different kinds of reinforcement.

  2. Of course, it's been written about! Alexis Madrigal's recent piece on Natasha Schüll's ethnography of slot-machine addiction gathers in the problem of what you term "intermittent attention."

  3. Yes, I'm planning to bring up that post by Alexis in a future post on this subject. Hard to surprise anyone when I have smart, well-read people turning up in the comboxes….

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