August 14, 2010

Too wired to concentrate

Czech CR cover.jpg
The cover of the Czech edition of Capitalist Realism - thanks to Michal Rybka for arranging the translation

I was pleased and surprised to see Capitalist Realism mentioned in Fabio Gironi's excellent introductory essay in the Speculations journal, Science-Laden Theory: Outlines of an Unsettled Alliance. I think that Fabio's piece will soon become the first stop for people who want to get a handle on speculative realism. I would, however, like to take up a point that Fabio makes in the footnotes - not for the sake of quibbling, but because it will allow me to clarify and extend claims that might have been ambiguous or underdeveloped. Fabio writes:

    Fisher goes as far as suggesting that the structure of the internet essentially recalls the plasticity of capitalism, since capitalist reality ‘is akin to the multiplicity of options available on a digital document, where no decision is final, revisions are always possible, and any previous moment can be recalled at any time’ (Ibid., 54). I think that this parallel casts an unfairly gloomy light on an instrument—the Internet—whose open structure has certainly engendered new phenomena of digital indifferent individualism, but that presents no inherent connivance with capitalist rule, and that in fact can as well be one of the main mediators for the formation of that new kind of political agency that Fisher calls for.

I absolutely agree with the last point. I certainly wasn't meaning to suggest an absolute fit between capitalism and the internet, or anything of that sort; indeed I don't mention the internet at all in the passage that Fabio cites. I was thinking more of word processing or Photoshop than the internet, actually. Clearly, the relationship between these infinitely revisable forms and the control techniques of indefinite postponement that I describe in Capitalist Realism is more than analogous. I meant the emphasis to be on capitalism's reliance on/ homology with the digital rather than on any inherent tendency in digitality "towards" capitalism. At the same time, I do think that the kind of critique that Jodi Dean has made of communicative capitalism is absolutely crucial. If ever there was a case for something being appraised "dialectically", then the internet is it. But at this point, I think we need to talk about cyberspace rather than just the internet. Technology such as smart phones mean that, increasingly, we are not "using the internet" so much as we are inside the total environment of cyberspace.

Earlier in the same note, Fabio refers to my claims that the young in particular are "too wired to concentrate" and that "[t]he consequence of being hooked into the entertainment matrix is twitchy, agitated interpassivity, an inability to concentrate or focus." Aptly enough, with the Accelerationism event coming up, the phrase "too wired to concentrate" comes from Nick Land's great piece "Cybergothic". "Wired" here, evidently, means connected as well as hyped up. In writing those passages, I had one eye on Foucault (or Deleuze's reconstruction of Foucault in the "Societies of Control" essay) and the other on McLuhan. Being "too wired to concentrate" is not inherently a problem; indeed, in many contexts outside the classroom is often an advantage. But such attentional dispersion is a problem when it is inserted into the old concentrational-disciplinary system, where it is massively dysfunctional. Many of the current and upcoming crises of education will turn on this mismatch, and there's a class dimension here. I suspect that literate students are likely to gain even more advantages in the future, as literacy becomes an ever rarer skill. Many A-level students and many university students I've taught don't read - they scan text via screens, which is a very different thing. Screen culture is connective, not reflective.

The "twitchy, agitated interpassivity" I describe - from which I'm far from being exempt myself - it is what Linda Stone calls "continuous partial attention" It's not a simple matter of opposing pleasure to duty. As digital addicts we are much like Matt Dillon's junkie in Drugstore Cowboy, "working harder than a construction worker on overtime". The constant craving to be connected, or to click through to the next link, or to check to see if mail has arrived, is intensely demanding: cyberspace is a hard taskmaster, and one that is never satisfied (and which, similarly, leaves us feeling dissatisfied any drained). Increasingly, I find reading books to be a refuge from digital twitch, and, in that way, more enjoyable - than ever. (That's one reason that I greet the rise of ebooks with something of a shudder.)

It's worth citing Stone on continuous partial attention at some length here:

    With cpa, we feel most alive when we’re connected, plugged in, and in the know. We constantly SCAN for opportunities – activities or people – in any given moment. With every opportunity we ask, “What can I gain here?”

    ... Continuous partial attention is an always on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that creates an artificial sense of crisis. We are always in high alert. We are demanding multiple cognitively complex actions from ourselves. We are reaching to keep a top priority in focus, while, at the same time, scanning the periphery to see if we are missing other opportunities. If we are, our very fickle attention shifts focus. What’s ringing? Who is it? How many emails? What’s on my list? What time is it in Bangalore?

    In this state of always-on crisis, our adrenalized “fight or flight” mechanism kicks in. This is great when we’re being chased by tigers. How many of those 500 emails a day is a TIGER? How many are flies? Is everything an emergency? Our way of using the current set of technologies would have us believe it is.

    Over the last twenty years, we have become expert at continuous partial attention and we have pushed ourselves to an extreme that I call, continuous continuous partial attention. There are times when cpa is the best attention strategy for what we’re doing; and, in small doses, continuous partial attention serves us well. There are times when cpa and ccpa compromises us.

    The “shadow side” of cpa is over-stimulation and lack of fulfillment. The latest, greatest powerful technologies are now contributing to our feeling increasingly powerless. Researchers are beginning to tell us that we may actually be doing tasks more slowly and poorly.

    And that’s not all. We have more attention-related and stress-related diseases than ever before. Continuous continuous partial attention and the fight or flight response associated with it, can set off a cascade of stress hormones, starting with norepinephrin and its companion, cortisol. As a hormone, cortisol is a universal donor. It can attach to any receptor site. As a result, dopamine and seratonin –the hormones that help us feel calm and happy – have nowhere to go because cortisol has taken up the available spaces. The abundance of cortisol in our systems has contributed to our turning to pharmaceuticals to calm us down and help us sleep.

This last point recalls one student I taught whose father told me in despair that he had to turn off the electricity at night in order to get her to go to sleep.

I know that I would be more productive (and less twitchily dissatisfied) if I could partially withdraw from cyberspace , where much of my activitity - or rather interpassivity - involves opening up multiple windows and pathetically cycling through twitter and email for updates, like a lab rat waiting for another hit. (The rat analogy is not idle: there's an argument that rats become more quickly addicted when they are given stimuli randomly; email is similarly random, sometimes providing massive satisfaction, often thin pickings.) The same goes for politics - a politics entirely contained within cyberspace would be locked into its interpassive circuits; but a politics that cannot make cyberspace one of its crucial terrains would be useless.

Posted by mark at August 14, 2010 02:35 PM | TrackBack