Demons and Deities of Distractions

We must be moving past the backlash against the wired life with a backlash against that backlash that looks not just like acceptance, but a full-on embrace of what The Researchers call distributed attention.

Matthew Battles at the NYT Draft Blog looks at how writers have always welcomed, if not needed, the incursion of the world to aid them in their work:

The impulse to connect to the outside world is an ancient one. Martial, the wry and ribald Roman poet, relished bringing the prosaic textures of daily experience into his poems — and to bring the moment of their making into the world.

He looks at ways writers have always used journals and commonplaces and The Commons to welcome outside influence into their work. He sees Twitter and platforms like Red Lemonade as ways contemporary authors are, so to speak, letting a river run through it.

The poet Martial may have had a slave run a poem out into the world for reaction and contemplation. We now have Twitter and Facebook. But, overall, the exchange takes place where it always has: amid the blooming, buzzing confusion of the world.

Kenneth Goldsmith, who is semi-famous for his concept of Uncreative Writing, explains his theory of writing-by-appropriation at The Chronicle as not only a not-evil way of producing text, but as the only conceivable way to do so in a digital age. He calls it language hoarding, and patchwriting: “a way of weaving together various shards of other people’s words into a tonally cohesive whole.” But this “uncreative writing” is not your father’s plagiarism, not slavish imitation, it is:

a writing imbued with celebration, ablaze with enthusiasm for the future, embracing this moment as one pregnant with possibility. This joy is evident in the writing itself, in which there are moments of unanticipated beauty—some grammatical, others structural, many philosophical: the wonderful rhythms of repetition, the spectacle of the mundane reframed as literature, a reorientation to the poetics of time, and fresh perspectives on readerliness, to name just a few. And then there’s emotion: yes, emotion. But far from being coercive or persuasive, this writing delivers emotion obliquely and unpredictably, with sentiments expressed as a result of the writing process rather than by authorial intention.

One of the things I bristle at most is the comparison of the brain to a computer. My brain at least is not a machine, and I suggest to others not taking a living organism that is somehow, seemingly, tied into the ether around us with a dumb box. The brain does much more than recall information and play chess. So while I’m predisposed, then, to disagree with anyone who would say that our brains are like the internet, and that the constant flow of information through hyperlinks is akin to synaptic connections, what is good about this little film by Tiffany Shlain is that, however much you like the analogy, the brain still comes out the victor. The animations are lovely (my son calls the flower-brained kid “the brain child”). Still, come on: the internet is dumb. Your brain, however, is smart: smarter than you are.

The point where this goes off the rails is when, rather than being content with using the internet as a loose analogy for the way the brain works, the brain and person becomes an analogy for what we are building with the internet (hello Skynet), suggesting that together we are raising our child-internet into a quite possibly empathic, sentient, engaged thing. Then it jumps the shark when it gets moralistic and tells us to limit our screen time and only attend to things worth attending to (so both we and our internet will rock). Maybe the book is better.

(This short post contains 3-days worth of distractions and distractedness between its lines.)