Driven to distraction, then away again

June 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

Some snippets from a thought-provoking article by Johann Hari in the Independent yesterday:

…there’s a reason why that word – “wired” – means both “connected to the internet” and “high, frantic, unable to concentrate”.

…here’s the function that the book – the paper book that doesn’t beep or flash or link or let you watch a thousand videos all at once – does for you that nothing else will. It gives you the capacity for deep, linear concentration. As Ulin puts it: “Reading is an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction…. It requires us to pace ourselves. It returns us to a reckoning with time. In the midst of a book, we have no choice but to be patient, to take each thing in its moment, to let the narrative prevail. We regain the world by withdrawing from it just a little, by stepping back from the noise.”

A book has a different relationship to time than a TV show or a Facebook update. It says that something was worth taking from the endless torrent of data and laying down on an object that will still look the same a hundred years from now. The French writer Jean-Phillipe De Tonnac says “the true function of books is to safeguard the things that forgetfulness constantly threatens to destroy.” It’s precisely because it is not immediate – because it doesn’t know what happened five minutes ago in Kazakhstan, or in Charlie Sheen’s apartment – that the book matters.

…We are the first generation to ever use the internet, and when I look at how we are reacting to it, I keep thinking of the Inuit communities I met in the Arctic, who were given alcohol and sugar for the first time a generation ago, and guzzled them so rapidly they were now sunk in obesity and alcoholism. Sugar, alcohol and the web are all amazing pleasures and joys – but we need to know how to handle them without letting them addle us.

The idea of keeping yourself on a digital diet will, I suspect, become mainstream soon. Just as I’ve learned not to stock my fridge with tempting carbs, I’ve learned to limit my exposure to the web – and to love it in the limited window I allow myself. I have installed the programme “Freedom” on my laptop: it will disconnect you from the web for however long you tell it to. It’s the Ritalin I need for my web-induced ADHD.

Hari makes a couple of plugs in the article: one, for David Ulin’s book The Lost Art of Reading – Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, and the other for software that helps you stop procrastinating (see below for a list of links to stuff on this). Hari makes his point by contrasting the linearity of the book with the nonlinear complexity of the internet, but I think there is a broader point (not to mention tools and techniques for fighting procrastination that extend beyond Ulin’s manifesto and a set of computer programmes designed by super-procrastinators). I think society was starting to exhibit strong ADHD tendencies even before Twitter, Facebook etc. started poking us, and I also think that certain activities or professions have always encouraged and even required this kind of mentality.

In particular, I think that the role of what Pierre Bourdieu (1991) refers to as the political professional – a broad category that, in the UK, would include Members of Parliament, student activists, and many other positions – requires the ability to say something about anything, to take a position and thus to appear as “being in the know,” as Ulin puts it. What this role does not require is the capacity to concentrate on and engage with one problem for a sustained period of time.

Why doesn’t the role require this? Because the political professional has other people to do that for them. Successful political professionals are able to say something about anything while in front of the rolling camera because they have been properly briefed beforehand by someone who will probably never step into the limelight (at least not intentionally – a point which makes me think of Junior Policy Advisor Ollie Reeder at the end of The Thick of It episode in which, on discovering that his face has appeared on the front page of the newspaper as one of the losers in a hectic night of “spin” in which advisors, junior politicians and enforcers all try to better their position during the transition from one Prime Minister to another, he says “But I’m not supposed to be in the newspaper…”).

It probably goes without saying that there is a need for both kinds of work, but nevertheless there is always a fair amount of criticism levelled by each “side” against the other, something I encountered in my research in India. Something that has been articulated by a number of academics is the idea that part of the attraction of a certain kind of firefighting, in-the-moment and up-to-the-minute politics/activism may be that it justifies not thinking about the bigger picture (the longue durée?) – the awful situation which we can’t see how we can change. In an interview I conducted in Delhi, an academic at Jawaharlal Nehu University (JNU) used the phrase “No we don’t have time for all that, we have to do things” to characterise the mentality of some of the activists of whom he was critical because he felt they had no time for theory or reflection but were always rushing here and there following the latest crisis and controversy. Those activists were in turn critical of JNU academics who they saw as always criticising and engaging in post-facto deconstructions of activist attempts to make the world a better place, rather than joining the struggle.

Johann Hari’s article made me think about the tension I feel between my own interests in academic research (which requires the capacity for sustained linear concentration) and the practice of politics (which requires the capacity for rapid mental manouevring to always appear up-to-date to the nearest nanosecond), and the claim I have heard made many times that it is impossible for an individual to keep a foot in both these camps. Although many reasons have been offered for why “the twain shall never meet,” perhaps one reason is this, that the mental change of gear required between the two is too harsh on the gearbox and greatly increases the likelihood of either stalling or sending your RPM through the roof by putting your foot down in first when you thought you were in fifth.

Anti-procrastination software:


Bourdieu, Pierre (1991) Language and Symbolic Power ed. John B Thompson, trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson. Cambridge: Polity Press

Castaneda, Quetzil E. (2006) “Ethnography in the Forest: An Analysis of Ethics in the Morals of Anthropology” Cultural Anthropology 21 (1) 121-145

D’Andrade, Roy (1995) “Moral Models in Anthropology” Current Anthropology 36 (3) 399-408

Hale, Charles R. (1997) “Consciousness, Violence, and the Politics of Memory in Guatemala” Current Anthropology 38 (5) 817-838

Hale, Charles R. (2006) “Activist Research v. Cultural Critique: Indigenous Land Rights and the Contradictions of Politically Engaged Anthropology” Cultural Anthropology 21 (1) 96-120

Jean-Klein, Iris and Annelise Riles (2005) “Introducing Discipline: Anthropology and Human Rights Administrations” Political and Legal Anthropology Review 28 (2) 173-202

Mosse, David (2006) “Anti-social anthropology: objectivity, objection and the ethnography of public policy and professional communities” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12: 935–956

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy (1995) “The Primacy of the Ethical: propositions for a Militant Anthropology” Current Anthropology 36 (3) 409-440

Shah, Alpa (2010) In the Shadows of the State: Indigenous Politics, Environmentalism, and Insurgency in Jharkhand, India London: Duke University Press


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