And deliver us from distraction: Understanding resistance to media life

Note: This is cross-posted from the Culture Digitally blog, which represents a collective effort by a couple dozen scholars converging on questions of cultural production in the digital age. This is part of a National Science Foundation-sponsored series of workshops, the first held March 2011 at Cornell University and the second coming in April 2012 at Temple University.

Jonathan Franzen, dubbed the Great American Novelist by TIME magazine, isn’t a fan of ebooks—nay, he sees them as corrupting our values, undermining all that’s good and holy about the printed word and its place in society.

But what caught my attention about this report on his comments at a writing festival recently wasn’t so much his lament for the loss of a sense of permanence (“everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change”), although that does raise interesting questions about the role of physicality in media’s communication of authority. No, I was more intrigued by the backstory of his writing habits, which appear to shape how he sees technology generally:

The acclaimed author of Freedom and The Corrections – which are published as ebooks – has said in the past that “it’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction”. He seals the ethernet port on his own computer to prevent him connecting to the internet while he writes, also removing the card so he is unable to play computer games and wearing noise-cancelling headphones to prevent distraction.

Leaving aside the issue of a removable card used to play computer games (huh?), this concern about the interwebs, with all their neon lights and dens of distraction, getting in the way of the creative writing process appears to be shared among a number of leading writers today—at least judging by the list of authors who swear by the benefits of a Mac/Windows application that’s appropriately titled Freedom.

Screenshot from the internet-blocking software Freedom

The software locks down all network connections for up to 8 hours; you can only break the spell by restarting your machine. (By the way, I’ve played with Freedom a bit, and it’s a fine tool; my wife swears by it for her novel writing.)

So, why should this internet avoidance matter for us—for the study of cultural production in the digital age? Because, as Mark Deuze noted in this space the other day, and as he’ll explore in his forthcoming book, “our lives gradually, invisibly, [are] shift[ing] from living with media – in which case there are indeed things that can be effectively switch ‘off’ (by pulling a plug or developing sophisticated media literacies) – to living in media.” As this transition occurs, I would argue that it becomes increasingly important to understand the strategies that people deploy in negotiating these conditions—both rhetorically in the way they talk about living in media, and materially in the way they structure their physical environment to embrace or resist living in media.

Of course, the premise of a media life suggests that, as lived experience and work practice and so forth become ever more mediated, distinctions between life “offline” and life “online” begin to blur, making it harder (and less meaningful, anyway) to distinguish between them. Thus we might expect it to become more challenging for people to step back, away from media, and self-critique their experience lived within and through it. And yet, given the lengths that writers like Franzen are going to (superglueing your ethernet connection—really?!), it would seem that research on cultural production and technology use might better capture the dynamics of resistance to the connectivity that is so central to media life, for reasons ranging from productivity to digital anxiety. (p.s. I’m sure there’s a literature on internet avoidance that I’m missing here, so forgive my ignorance; please enlighten us in the comments!)

Perhaps the more pertinent question, and an important practical consideration for scholars whose primary output is long-form writing, is this: How do users negotiate the participatory immersion and fluid, ambient exchange of always-on communication with the temporary need for quiet and connection-free contemplation? Because it isn’t just an idiosyncratic group of elite authors who are using these techniques, judging by the folks talking about Freedom on Twitter. I think it’s fair to say that many internet users (hey, I’ll count myself among them) struggle to maintain attention—real, enduring, deep-writing kind of attention—on digital projects, when so many bright, shiny bobbles are just a click away, ready to relieve us, momentarily, from the stress of writer’s block.

Practically speaking: Don’t we all, Odysseus like, need to lash ourselves to a mast (of Freedom?) to avoid succumbing to the Siren song of digital temptations?

If so, then what are the implications of this condition, for scholarship on digital users and for our own personal work habits? How are we to understand  the psychological, rhetorical, and/or material negotiations that figure into digital labor in an age of easy distraction?

Perhaps, as the nature of digital work and writing evolves over time, it’s possible that we’ll come to re-define notions of “productivity” and “distraction” in a digital context. In the meantime, we’re left to wonder about the philosophy and practicality of shutting off the wireless to survive within (or without) a media life.

  • DLewis

    Great post, Seth. It’s ironic that Internet-free computer work is seen as absent of distraction–I can still remember when Minesweeper and Solitaire were seen as the bane of office productivity before anyone had e-mail. And you’re right, the way we deal with distraction says very real things about how we approach our work.

    Oh, and Franzen’s crazy: stable text simply because it’s printed? I guess he’s never picked up an edition of “King Lear” or “Hamlet.” 

  • Anonymous

    So true, Dallin! The social construction of distraction, if you will, has certainly changed over time, even in the digital work era. It would be interesting to see how fears about distraction vs. productivity, in relation to work technology (or otherwise), have evolved over a much larger (pre-digital) period. Hmm…