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.

Failure and finding partners: Ideas for innovating journalism school

David Cohn has revived the Carnival of Journalism in a fabulous way. This is coming in advance of a roundtable he’s hosting at the Reynolds Journalism Institute that focuses on the Knight Commission’s report on the information needs of communities. The topic for Round 1: the role of higher education as “hubs of journalistic activity” and centers of “digital and media literacy.” A number of great ideas are rolling in today (you’ll find some links in the trackbacks here), and Carrie Brown-Smith in particular covered several major issues that I would endorse wholeheartedly. Read her post.

For my part, here are three two basic recommendations that I’d like to toss out—more as questions and points of discussion than actual fleshed-out solutions, mind you. (I was going to propose three recommendations, but this post is getting a bit long-winded already. It’s the academic in me…)

Recommendation 1: Create opportunities for students to fail—in a good way. As just about any educator will tell you, students are obsessed with grades (hey, I was too at their age). This, of course, can make it hard to help students see the vision of working and struggling for the sake of learning rather than merely meeting requirements for points. I’m sure I speak for a few professors when I say that I’d like to get away from grades entirely and find some other, better method of evaluation, but generally we’re stuck with the system we have. And, as much as we bemoan grades, the academic system does nothing to deter students from being super grade-conscious (by virtue of the way scholarships work, etc.).

The upshot, I believe, is that all of this creates a culture of perfectionism and conformity that might lead to good grades but doesn’t contribute to an ethos of energy, innovation, and risk-taking—i.e., the stuff of tech startups that we need to be encouraging in higher education and in journalism education in particular. This is a long way of saying that we (educators) can do more to give students a “license to fail,” in the most positive sense—an opportunity to think big, play with stuff, and learn by failing along the way. We could think of this as colleges encouraging students to carve out 20% of their academic time to experiment, a la Google employees.

OK, nice. So how do we do this? Well, as I said, it would be hard to work against the structure of grading in general. But if we think about the student newspaper as the place where journalism students used to (and continue to) “fail” on a regular basis, then maybe we can start imagining opportunities to create similar (but more broadly-focused) extracurricular “centers” of some kind—say, coffeehouse-style places, physical spaces, where students can congregate and collaborate on crazy projects. But we wouldn’t want to limit this just to journalism students (for, as C.W. Anderson reminds us, “j-school is too important to be left to journalists“) … which brings me to …

Recommendation 2: Build partnerships within and beyond the university. First, there are good reasons for journalism programs to build stronger partnerships with local media organizations—not for exploiting student labor, but for creating a more realistic experience for students and a richer media offering for the community. The Times-NYU partnership is a great example of this. But I’ll focus on the first part of my recommendation: Journalism programs should be wasting no time trying to forge connections with other departments and academic centers around campus. Yes, this happens to some extent, but not deeply enough. Begin with the low-hanging fruit: Journalism has, um, a little revenue problem on its hands, so why not look to the business school for some brainstorming? And I’m not suggesting another bureaucratic apparatus, some center with an eight-word name and little to show for it; rather, I’m envisioning a scenario in which administrators from both programs come together and create those formalized spaces—think of them like “network forums,” in the framework developed by Fred Turner and touched on in my dissertation—wheres faculty and students from across the divide can congregate, share ideas, and see what emerges from the mix, the organic fashion of a (business) hackathon. Such melding is “where good ideas come from“—the very stuff of innovation. Some (like Jeff Jarvis and his program at CUNY) are making big strides in this area of entrepreneurship. But we need more, and soon.

Another obvious point of connection is journalism and computer science. Again, some are nicely moving into this space (like Columbia) and others have been working at this for a while (like Rich Gordon), but we need more action, and soon. J-schools shouldn’t try to teach programming any more than programmers should try to teach journalism, but certainly there’s some sorely needed cross-polination: things they can teach us, and things we can teach them.

On that note, I’ll end with a little story. In my honors Introduction to Mass Communication course I have a lot of students from around the University of Minnesota. During introductions on Day 1 yesterday, one student said he’s a computer science major.

“Are you interested in journalism?” I asked.

He shot back a no-duh look.

“Of course. Why do you think I’m here?”

I think we’d find that a surprising number of computer science folks (and others, for that matter) have an interest in journalism, even just contributing to its development in some small way. Why? For some of the same reasons we got into this: for its noble calling, its idealistic vision, its civic purpose. They’re interested. We’ve just got to reach out and invite them over to play. Even if we fail a little along the way.