Attention, Irritation, Texts

As I write this I’m sitting on my bed, surrounded by seven books. I’ve dipped into each one of them – a little while ago I read through some of the aphorisms in Eugene Thacker’s Infinite Resignation before reading through some of my friend Matt’s introduction to Mark Fisher’s Post-Capitalist-Desire. But I’m distracted. I constantly feel a kind of mental tugging, a little itch to just check the timeline again. Even as I read I’m aware of the itch, and I know it’s just a matter of time before my willpower breaks down and I put the book aside (probably part-way through a sentence let alone a chapter) to doomscroll again.

Pathetic, really. Not exactly something anyone would be proud to admit, least of all someone doing a PhD – reading is our bread and butter after all, isn’t it? But the itch is there. And given some of the thoughts and experiences shared with me recently (ironically through social media) I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think many of us are increasingly concerned about the way we use social media (and, indeed, how social media uses us) and the broader consequences it might be having on us.

I don’t want this to be one of those long, preening thinkpieces about the dangers of social media so popular among the enlightened liberals at the New York Times. We’ve had enough of those. I want to try something different here. I hope it doesn’t come across as too self-involved.

In the third chapter of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, he describes his experience of teaching in English secondary schools. It goes without saying that the book has become a cultural touchstone, a quite bleak but powerful portrayal of the social ills of post-Blair British society. Many people I know came away from the book with a strange sense of catharsis, a feeling that ‘at least now we know how things stand.’ I suppose I had a similar reaction when I first read the book (and it must have been five or six years ago now), but one passage in particular had such a strong impression on me that I still find myself pondering it on a quite regular basis.

Fisher homes in on the way that his teenage students respond to the demand that they read a book, or even just a few sentences. They protest that “they can’t do it. The most frequent complaint teachers hear is that it’s boring. It not so much the content of the written material that is at issue here; it is the act of reading itself that is deemed to be ‘boring’.” The strange thing is that I remember as child I barely did anything but read – I devoured fiction at a pace my weekly allowance could rarely hope to meet. And then came my first iPod Touch and then a laptop – the internet. Reading fell somewhat lower on my list of priorities at that point. But for Fisher, “what we are facing here is not just time-honoured teenage torpor, but the mismatch between a ‘New Flesh’ that is ‘too wired to concentrate’ and the confining, concentration all logics of decaying disciplinary systems. To be bored simply means to be removed from the sensation-stimulus matrix of texting, YouTube, and fast food; to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand.“ The upshot of this ‘entertainment matrix’ to, he thinks, a “twitchy, agitated interpassivity, an inability to concentrate or focus.”

In her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, the artist and writer Jenny Odell describes “a certain nervous feeling, of being overstimulated and unable to sustain a train of thought”. How many of us feel that way now? How many of us know that our attention spans are not what they used to be? That our capacity to focus, to pay attention, has been fried in the information-overload of internet circuitry? How many of us have left a room and instinctively patted our pockets to check our phone is there, reassured that we’re still ‘hooked in’, only a swipe away?

It’s something I worry about, and quite intensely. I worry about how much or little I read. Whether I’m reading in the right way. That I can tell myself that it can be useful and even creative to read like this, but is that just an excuse to cover up my inability to just sit down and read a difficult book? I think about how platforms like Goodreads change how we think about books, how we begin to count the number per year like a leaderboard: If I’ve not read every aphorism in Infinite Resignation, or every essay in a collection of pieces on Spinoza, can I really click on the button that says I’ve “read” it?

I’ve been concerned about my reading habits for quite a while now: namely, that I so rarely finish any of the philosophy texts I start, and that reading fiction at all seems to have largely fallen by the wayside. Sometimes it can be useful! – I might read a passage in one book and have a brainwave, grabbing another book to read a similar passage and join the dots in some new creative idea in a rush of excitement. But other times it’s just a distractedness. I find myself staring at the page blankly without even realising it. I read and re-read the same sentence over and over, but nothing is cognitively retained. Before I even realise it, my phone is suddenly in my hand again.

But what is it that draws me – us, perhaps – back? Many of us have already long given up on Facebook (something about it almost seems a bit outdated, and I wonder if this is how it felt in the twilight of the MySpace years), but what have most of us replaced it with? Twitter. Instagram. TikTok. And Twitter is a strange place. It can be wonderful – I’ve met some truly amazing people through it and the sense of collective knowledge-production can be exhilarating. But why the constant scrolling, what draws us back? I have an excellent novel right in front of me, why do I care so much about what’s happening on Twitter? Can it possibly be a more worthwhile use of my time?

I think a helpful way to conceptualise what Twitter is (and what keeps us scrolling) is that it is a machine designed to monetise irritation and anger. The purpose isn’t really to make you happy or to connect you with other people – at best these are instrumental. I think a kind of low-intensity irritation is really what drives it. A news article about yet another horrible injustice. A ‘hot take’ which riles you up. A pile-on as some poor soul becomes the Main Character for the day. Some ridiculous opinion column by a writer whose name is longer than the headline. And what do we do? We reply. We dunk on them. We ratio them. We seethe and we cope. But most importantly, we give them our attention. And then we scroll a bit more – after all, I’m feeling irritated now, so maybe if I scroll I’ll see something to set me right again.

In The Twittering Machine, Richard Seymour argues that “The shitstorm is not a form of accountability. Nor is it political pedagogy, regardless of the high-minded intentions, or sadism, of the participants. No one is learning anything, except how to remain connected to the machine. It is a punishment beating, its ecstasies sanctioned by virtue. Twitter has, as part of its addictive repertoire, democratised punishment.” There’s a certain jouissance in the ratio, in the doomscrolling, in the quick jab you throw out at a Bad Tweet you saw. But it’s that affective component, that almost automatic reaction, that keeps us here, because it commands our attention.

And our attention is, I think, in increasingly short supply. In Odell’s book, she describes a certain kind of noticing, a being-there even, that can be cultivated with practice, and does a wonderful job drawing out the political implications for our understanding of the commons. She writes about how she realised that “what I’ll see depends on how I look, and for how long. It’s a lot like breathing” And I think also of a famous passage by Deleuze in conversation with Negri, where he states that “Creating has always been something dif­ferent from communicating. The key thing may be to create vacuoles of noncommunication, circuit breakers, so we can elude control.” The inducement to communication, the demand that we communicate, appears to have been hijacked as the terrain of our own control when we are increasingly panicked, anxious, inattentive and distracted.

And I think part of the problem I have is what this attention economy takes away from us: the time, space, and patience necessary for more meaningful pursuits. As Odell so clearly highlights in her book, the capacity to remain focused for extended periods of time is crucial to many forms of political action. And when our attention is being monetised and diluted, we gradually lose one of the tools necessary to try and address the cascading series of crises afflicting us today. Seymour cites a study showing that “The average global internet user now spends 135 minutes per day on the social industry platforms. If spread uniformly over a life, this would amount to fifty thousand hours.” To what new and better ends could we be repurposing our time and attention if we were to place it back under our own control, if we developed strategies to escape the control of this attention economy?

I don’t want to turn this into some enormous essay where I turn to the next chapter in order to discuss Baudrillard and Jameson and schizoid-subjectivity, the media, images, the expansion of significant. Maybe another time. Besides, there’s plenty of good books on this already. For now I just wanted to log off Twitter and write something for a while.

Bibliography:

  • Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism
  • Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy
  • Richard Seymour, The Twittering Machine

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