Attention, Austerity, Freedom
“Never has the individual been so completely delivered up to a blind collectivity, and never have men been less capable, not only of subordinating their actions to their thoughts, but even of thinking. Such terms as oppressors and oppressed, the idea of classes–all that sort of thing is near to losing all meaning, so obvious are the impotence and distress of all men in face of the social machine, which has become a machine for breaking hearts and crushing spirits, a machine for manufacturing irresponsibility, stupidity, corruption, slackness and, above all, dizziness. The reason for this painful state of affairs is perfectly clear. We are living in a world in which nothing is made to man’s measure; there exists a monstrous discrepancy between man’s body, man’s mind and the things which at present time constitute the elements of human existence; everything is in disequilibrium.”
— Simone Weil, “Oppression and Liberty” (1955)
Programming note: On the recommendation of a friend, I’m experimenting with Substack’s podcast tool. You’ll note that nothing has changed with regards to the content, except that you now have the option to listen to the main essay should that prove more convenient. If you hit play above you’ll be taken to the webpage for the newsletter from which the audio will play. Nothing fancy, just me reading the text. If you have any thoughts on this, feel free to pass them along.
In the wake of the American failure to contain or manage COVID-19, I’ve begun to encounter the recurring refrain, “We’re going to have to learn how to live with this virus.” The tone may be indignant, exasperated, defiant, but the general point is the same: the virus is with us for the foreseeable future and people need to figure out how best to get on with their lives.
Regrettably, this is probably correct. A web of interconnected failures, stemming from the highest levels of government down to individual citizens, have more or less assured this outcome. We can hope for a vaccine to arrive sooner rather than later. We can hope for better treatment options. We can hope the virus unexpectedly fizzles out, “despite ourselves” as Zeynep Tufekci recently put it. But, as she added, hope is not a plan, and we’re more than likely stuck with COVID for at least another year.
But that’s not what I’m going to talk about here. Rather, I want to begin by discussing how this sentiment, “We’re going to have to learn how to live with this virus,” suddenly struck me as a useful way of framing an approach to the personal, social, and global challenges posed by the present configuration of digital society—challenges to the conduct of our everyday lives, to fabric of our communities, and to political and economic order.
So here’s the thing, we’re going to have to learn how to live with digital technology. We can hope for legislative action and regulation. We can hope for a radical transformation of the industry stemming from a labor insurgency at tech companies. We can hope that a renewed focus on humane technology may bear fruit in the long run. We can hope that digital technology, despite ourselves, doesn’t (further) accelerate the corruption of the political and social order. But hope is not a plan, and we’re more than likely stuck with the existing techno-social configuration of digital technology for the foreseeable future.
Don’t get me wrong. Just as I support efforts to develop a vaccine, discover therapeutic options, or restore governmental leadership to manage COVID-19, so too do I find merit in the various efforts I mentioned above to better navigate the social consequences of digital technology. But in the same way that I cannot simply hope and do nothing with regards to COVID-19, so I cannot simply hope for these various measures regarding digital technology to materialize and do nothing myself in the meantime.
For one thing, I am personally ill-positioned to do very much of consequence with regards to efforts either to develop anti-viral therapies, for example, or to draft legislation to regulate the tech industry. It’s not that I can’t do anything at all, of course. I can donate to organizations supporting vaccine research and I can contact my representative. But, these actions will not help me today or tomorrow or next month.
Over the last few years, I found myself occasionally writing in defense of a multi-faceted response to the challenges of digital technology. Chiefly, this amounted to a defense of individualized efforts to address such challenges from those who insisted that such efforts were unnecessary, on the one hand, and, on the other, from those who believed them to be inadequate and perhaps even counter-productive. I readily granted that individualized action alone was insufficient to the full range and scope of the challenges in view, and I granted, too, that we should resist a consumerist framing of the problem in which better informed, ethical consumption would be the answer to our problems. But I was baffled by those who in their defense of collective and political action seemed bent on discrediting individualized or even localized action.
It now seems to me that COVID-19 presents an opportunity to make an instructive variation of the case I sought to make in these instances. The health threat is collective and it requires all manner of responses in order to be met, and some of those responses materialize at the level of individual or household choices. Precisely because of the interdependent nature of human society, not despite of it, we are urged to act responsibly with a view not only to our own health but to the health of our neighbors and our community. Our membership in a community of mutual inter-dependencies does not diminish the need for personal responsibility, it heightens it.
Consider, too, how the same veiled distribution of consequences plagues our response to the virus and to the various manifestations of digital infrastructure. I must think of the virus not only as a threat to me, which I may be free to discount, but as a threat to others through me. Likewise, I must think of certain digital technologies in light of the unequally distributed consequences to which my personal choices may contribute. Perhaps I have no reason to fear any adverse effects from my adoption of a front proch Ring camera, but I must be able to imagine how the widespread adoption of this technology will have adverse effects for already marginalized members of the community and how it further depletes the fund of communal trust.
So here is the paradox: Certain digital technologies should be resisted not merely for their personal consequences, which may be negligible for certain individuals, but for their collective consequences. But for this reason, I should not simply wait for collective action, I should personally resist these tools in order to mitigate their deleterious consequences locally. Will my resistance alone solve the challenge posed by these tools? Obviously not. Should that keep me from doing what I can to confront the problem? Again, in my view, obviously not. Similarly, will my wearing a mask make the coronavirus disappear? No. Bu should that keep me from wearing one? No, again.
I’m reminded of Solzhenitsyn’s rule for the common citizen seeking to live with integrity in a repressive regime: “Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.” He thought the artist could do more, but this much at least the average person could pledge to do.
Ivan Illich’s discussion of the question of public versus private ownership of industrial technology is also instructive. “It is equally distracting,” Illich wrote in Tools for Conviviality,
to suggest that the present frustration is primarily due to the private ownership of the means of production, and that the public ownership of these same factories under the tutelage of a planning board could protect the interest of the majority and lead society to an equally shared abundance. As long as Ford Motor Company can be condemned simply because it makes Ford rich, the illusion is bolstered that the same factory could make the public rich. As long as people believe that the public can profit from cars, they will not condemn Ford for making cars. The issue at hand is not the juridical ownership of tools, but rather the discovery of the characteristic of some tools which make it impossible for anybody to ‘own’ them. The concept of ownership cannot be applied to a tool that cannot be controlled.”
Now substitute Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey or Jeff Bezos for Henry Ford. The illusion to be combatted is that the tool itself is not at least part of the problem and that if it were only managed more ethically or regulated more effectively we could retain the benefits it confers while sidestepping its ills. What may be harder to countenance is the possibility that the tool itself may be destructive and corrosive of society, that its ills are essential to its nature rather than accidental.
So where does this leave us? It leaves us in the position of having to figure out how we are going to live with digital technologies rather than simply waiting for resolutions we cannot effect and which may or may not materialize.
To put this another way, yes, the most important problems we face are far greater than you or me. Yes, they require ambitious collective action. But when that action is not forthcoming, then our response cannot be to do nothing at all.
So where to begin? There are any number of possible answers, and they will vary greatly depending on your own circumstances. But allow me to make a modest suggestion: begin with your attention, because it may be that everything else will flow from this.
Attention is something I’ve written about on numerous occasions, so I’m hesitant about taking up the theme again here. But it’s been awhile, maybe two years, since last I wrote about it at any length, and I remain convinced that it’s a critical and urgen issue. So, as they say, hear me out.
I won’t comment on digital distractedness or social media platforms designed for compulsive engagement or the inability to get through a block of text without checking your smartphone 16 times or endless doomscrolling, as it’s now fashionable to call it (really just a new form of the old vice acedia), or our self-loathing tweets about the same. These matter only to the degree that we believe our attention ought to be directed toward something else, that in these instances it is somehow being misdirected or squandered. Attention, like freedom, is an instrumental and penultimate good, valuable to the degree that it unites us to a higher and substantive good. Perfect attention in the abstract, just as perfect freedom in the abstract, is at best mere potentiality. They are the conditions of human flourishing rather than its realization.
David Foster Wallace, who I realize has become a polarizing figure, was nonetheless right, in my view, to understand attention as constituting a form of freedom. “The really important kind of freedom,” Wallace claimed, “involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” “That is real freedom,” Wallace claimed, and I’m inclined to agree.
Freedom that’s worth a damn is the freedom to attend with care to what matters. “Effort is the currency of care,” as Evan Selinger so eloquently put it some time ago, and, I would add, the preeminent form such effort takes is attention. And, yes, of course, I’m going to quote Simone Weil again, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” What is jeopardized when our capacity for attention is compromised and hijacked is not our ability to read through War and Peace but rather our ability to care for ourselves, our neighbors, and our world as we should.
This, then, at least gives us a useful heuristic by which we might think about attention. Does it feel to you as if you are free in the deployment of your attention throughout any given day? Allow me here to speak out of my own experience: I know that it often doesn’t feel that way to me. I frequently find myself attending to what I know I shouldn’t or unable to attend to what I should. This is not a function of external coercion, strictly speaking. I experience it chiefly as a failure of will, as a form of unfreedom stemming from a regime of conditioning to which I’ve submitted myself more or less willingly.
And I feel the loss. The loss of focus, yes. The loss of productivity, yes. But also the loss the world and the loss of some version of myself to which I aspire.
I find myself needing constantly to ask, “What is worthy of my attention?” or, better, “What is worthy of my attention given what I claim to love, what I aim to accomplish, and who I hope to become?” If by our attention we grant the object of our attention some non-trivial power over the shape of our thoughts, feelings, and actions, then this may be one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves.
Several years ago, reflecting on this very matter, I wrote about the need for what I then called attentional austerity. Austerity is not a warm or appealing concept, of course. But once again, Illich can help us better frame the matter. “‘Austerity,’” he writes, “has also been degraded and has acquired a bitter taste, while for Aristotle or Aquinas it marked the foundation of friendship.” “In the Summa Theologica,” Illich continued, “Thomas deals with disciplined and creative playfulness … [defining] ‘austerity’ as a virtue which does not exclude all enjoyments, but only those which are distracting from or destructive of personal relatedness.” “For Thomas,” Illich concluded, “‘austerity’ is a complementary part of a more embracing virtue, which he calls friendship or joyfulness. It is the fruit of an apprehension that things or tools could destroy rather than enhance [graceful playfulness] in personal relations.”
From this perspective, then, austerity becomes not a deprivation but a virtue in service of a greater good and a higher joy, a virtue we do well to recover.
As we draw to a close, I want to add that it is not only a matter of consciously and austerely ordering my attention toward some greater good, of wresting it back from an environment that has become an elaborate Skinner box, it is also good for me to cultivate a form of expectant attentiveness to what is, a form of attention that commits itself to seeing the world before me.
The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz once observed that “In ancient China and Japan subject and object were understood not as categories of opposition but of identification.” “This is probably the source,” he speculated, “of the profoundly respectful descriptions of what surround us, of flowers, trees, landscapes, for the things we can see are somehow a part of ourselves, but only by virtue of being themselves and preserving their suchness, to use a Zen Buddhist term.”
Further on in the same essay he wrote about the wonder that arises when, as he put it, “contemplating a tree or a rock or a man, we suddenly comprehend that it is, even though it might not have been.” This kind of wonder, a wonder at the givenness of things, the sheer gratuity of existence is perhaps its own reward as well as the gateway to the love of wisdom, as the ancient philosophers believed.
I hear in Milosz’s words an invitation, an invitation to step away as I am able from the patterns of digitally mediated reality, which while not without its modest if diminishing satisfactions, can overwhelm other crucial modes of perception and being.
The question of attention in the age of digital media may ultimately come down to the question of limits, the acceptance of which may be the condition of a more enduring joy and satisfying life. What digital media promises on the other hand is an experience of limitlessness exemplified by the infinite scroll. It tempts us to become gluttons of the hyperreal. There is always more, and much of it may even seem urgent and critical. But we cannot attend to it all, nor should we. I know this, of course, but I need to remind myself more frequently than I’d care to admit.
Pine Trees, Hasegawa Tōhaku, c. 1595
News and Resources
Ten years after publishing The Shallows, Nicholas Carr talks to Ezra Klein about the book and its enduring relevance.
In “How We Lost Our Attention,” Matthew Crawford explored how our understanding of attention was shaped by early modern philosophical polemics in epistemology and political theory.
A few years back, Alan Jacobs presented 79 theses with commentary on the subject of attention and digital technology. They will repay whatever time you can give them, much here to spur thought and reflection. I was delighted to be part of a colloquium in which Jacobs presented these reflections and to offer a response, which you may find here.
This essay probably could’ve been about half as long but it includes some interesting reflections on the rise of closed group chats:
“As Facebook, Twitter and Instagram become increasingly theatrical – every gesture geared to impress an audience or deflect criticism – WhatsApp has become a sanctuary from a confusing and untrustworthy world, where users can speak more frankly. As trust in groups grows, so it is withdrawn from public institutions and officials. A new common sense develops, founded on instinctive suspicion towards the world beyond the group.”
I stumbled recently on two recent essays by Bruno Maçães, who was Portugal’s secretary of state for European affairs from 2013 to 2015. The first, “The Attack of the Civilization State,” appeared in a Noēma, a recently launched journal from the Berggruen Institute. The second, “The Great Pause Was an Economic Revolution,” appeared in Foreign Policy. I found both to be stimulating and I may have more to say about both of them in the future, although I confess they are outside my own areas of relative expertise. This in the former essay caught my attention:
“Western civilization was to be a civilization like no other. Properly speaking, it was not to be a civilization at all but something closer to an operating system … Its principles were meant to be broad and formal, no more than an abstract framework within which different cultural possibilities could be explored … Tolerance and democracy do not tell you how to live — they establish procedures, according to which those big questions may later be decided.”
This recalled some of what I attempted to articulate in a 2017 post, “I will put it this way: liberal democracy is a “machine” for the adjudication of political differences and conflicts, independently of any faith, creed, or otherwise substantive account of the human good. It was machine-like in its promised objectivity and efficiency.”
A look back at the advent of the Walkman:
“The Walkman instantly entrenched itself in daily life as a convenient personal music-delivery device; within a few years of its global launch, it emerged as a status symbol and fashion statement in and of itself. ‘We just got back from Paris and everybody’s wearing them,’ Andy Warhol enthused to the Post. Boutiques like Bloomingdale’s had months-long waiting lists of eager customers. Paul Simon ostentatiously wore his onstage at the 1981 Grammys; by Christmas, they were de-rigueur celebrity gifts, with leading lights like Donna Summer dispensing them by the dozens. There had been popular electronic gadgets before, such as the pocket-sized transistor radios of the fifties, sixties, and seventies. But the Walkman was in another league.”
Not the usual sort of link here, but I appreciated this essay about the enduring insights of the ancient Roman historian, Tacitus—“Thrones Wreathed in Shadow: Tacitus and the Psychology of Authoritarianism”:
“Shame, guilt, a lingering sense of powerlessness, and self-loathing: These are all emotions common to individuals living under tyranny. And, for all his literary brilliance and psychological acumen, Tacitus is no exception to this rule. In The Annals, when the historian describes the soul of a tyrant such as Tiberius, which he poetically envisions as crisscrossed with deep ‘lacerations’ and ‘wounds,’ he projects this state of invisible scarification onto Roman society as a whole. Indeed, the historian’s genius lies in his demonstration of how authoritarianism is, first and foremost, a collective malady — one that infects almost everyone, from the maniacal tyrant to the stolid local official, anonymous informer, or jeering spectator at the local theater. As Tacitus notes in a moving passage of The Annals, ‘the ties of our common humanity had been dissolved by the force of terror; and the rising surge of brutality drove compassion away.’”
— From a review of two recent books about walking, In Praise of Walking and In Praise of Paths :
I am a city walker, which is to say I walk to root myself. I define my neighborhood by walking, both its boundaries and my place within them, my connection to community. Even in the middle of a lockdown, I am out most mornings, to get exercise, yes, but also to remind myself of where I am. This is the hard part — to pay attention, to remain in the present, to look outward as well as inward, now from behind the forbidding filter of my face mask, while recognizing, as Torbjorn Ekelund reflects in “In Praise of Paths: Walking Through Time and Nature,” that “the path is order in chaos.”
— Talk of paths recalled an old post in which I reflected on the way of the tourist and the way of the pilgrim as paradigmatic modes of experience:
The way of the tourist is to consume; the way of the pilgrim is to be consumed.* To the tourist the journey is a means. The pilgrim understands that it is both a means and an end in itself. The tourist and the pilgrim experience time differently. For the former, time is the foe that gives consumption its urgency. For the latter, time is a gift in which the possibility of the journey is actualized. Or better, for the pilgrim time is already surrendered to the journey that, sooner or later, will come to its end. The tourist bends the place to the shape of the self. The pilgrim is bent to shape of the journey.
— From Richard Thomas’s “From Porch to Patio” (1975). As you read this consider what an interesting coda the advent of Ring makes to this argument:
“In this transition from porch to patio there is an irony. Nineteenth-century families were expected to be public and fought to achieve their privacy. Part of the sense of community that often characterized the nineteenth-century village resulted from the forms of social interaction that the porch facilitated. Twentieth-century man has achieved the sense of privacy in his patio, but in doing so he has lost part of his public nature which is essential to strong attachments and a deep sense of belonging or feelings of community.”
We’re half-way through the year now. What a year. I could not have imagined, for one thing, that I was going spend so much time commenting on a virus. But I also did not foresee this newsletter growing quite the way it has or that so many of you would support the work. So thanks. Thanks for reading. Thanks for letting others know about the newsletter.
P.S. Recent subscribers may be interested in a collection of essays I put together at the end of last year. It’s free to download, you can pay something for it if you like.