Oct 7 • 23M

"The Pathologies of the Attention Economy" (Audio), Links, Miscellany

The Convivial Society: Vol. 3, No. 16 (supplement)

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L. M. Sacasas
Audio version of The Convivial Society, a newsletter exploring the intersections of technology, society, and the moral life.
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Welcome back to the Convivial Society. In this installment, you’ll find the audio version of two recent posts: “The Pathologies of the Attention Economy” and “Impoverished Emotional Lives.” I’ve not combined audio from two separate installments before, but the second is a short “Is this anything?” post, so I thought it would be fine to include it here. (By the way, I realized after the fact that I thoughtlessly mispronounced Herbert Simon’s name as Simone. I’m not, however, sufficiently embarrassed to go back and re-record or edit the audio. So there you have it.)

If you’ve been reading over the past few months, you know that I’ve gone back and forth on how best to deliver the audio version of the essays. I’ve settled for now on this method, which is to send out a supplement to the text version of the essay. Because not all of you listen to the audio version, I’ll include some additional materials (links, resources, etc.) so that this email is not without potential value to those who do not listen to the audio.

Farewell Real Life

I noted in a footnote recently that Real Life Magazine had lost its funding and would be shutting down. This is a shame. Real Life consistently published smart and thoughtful essays exploring various dimensions of internet culture. I had the pleasure of writing three pieces for the magazine between 2018 and 2019: ”The Easy Way Out,” “Always On,” and “Personal Panopticons.”

I was also pleasantly surprised to encounter essays in the past year or two drawing on the work of Ivan Illich: “Labors of Love” and “Appropriate Measures,” each co-authored by Jackie Brown and Philippe Mesly, as well as “Doctor’s Orders” by Aimee Walleston.

And at any given time I’ve usually had a handful of Real Life essays open in tabs waiting to be read or shared. Here are some more recent pieces that are worth your time: “Our Friend the Atom The aesthetics of the Atomic Age helped whitewash the threat of nuclear disaster,” “Hard to See How trauma became synonymous with authenticity,” and “Life’s a Glitch The non-apocalypse of Y2K obscures the lessons it has for the present.”


The latest installment in Jon Askonas’s ongoing series in The New Atlantis is out from behind the paywall today. In “How Stewart Made Tucker,” Askonas weaves a compelling account of how Jon Stewart prepared the way for Tucker Carlson and others:

In his quest to turn real news from the exception into the norm, he pioneered a business model that made it nearly impossible. It’s a model of content production and audience catering perfectly suited to monetize alternate realities delivered to fragmented audiences. It tells us what we want to hear and leaves us with the sense that “they” have departed for fantasy worlds while “we” have our heads on straight. Americans finally have what they didn’t before. The phony theatrics have been destroyed — and replaced not by an earnest new above-the-fray centrism but a more authentic fanaticism.

You can find earlier installments in the series here: Reality — A post-mortem. Reading through the essay, I was struck again and again by how foreign and distant the world of late 90s and early aughts. In any case, the Jon’s work in this series is worth your time.

Kashmir Hill spent a lot of time in Meta’s Horizons to tell us about life in the metaverse:

My goal was to visit at every hour of the day and night, all 24 of them at least once, to learn the ebbs and flows of Horizon and to meet the metaverse’s earliest adopters. I gave up television, books and a lot of sleep over the past few months to spend dozens of hours as an animated, floating, legless version of myself.

I wanted to understand who was currently there and why, and whether the rest of us would ever want to join them.

Ian Bogost on smart thermostats and the claims made on their behalf:

After looking into the matter, I’m less confused but more distressed: Smart heating and cooling is even more knotted up than I thought. Ultimately, your smart thermostat isn’t made to help you. It’s there to help others—for reasons that might or might not benefit you directly, or ever.

Sun-ha Hong’s paper on predictions without futures. From the abstract:

… the growing emphasis on prediction as AI's skeleton key to all social problems constitutes what religious studies calls cosmograms: universalizing models that govern how facts and values relate to each other, providing a common and normative point of reference. In a predictive paradigm, social problems are made conceivable only as objects of calculative control—control that can never be fulfilled but that persists as an eternally deferred and recycled horizon. I show how this technofuture is maintained not so much by producing literally accurate predictions of future events but through ritualized demonstrations of predictive time.


As I wrote about the possibility that the structure of online experience might impoverish our emotional lives, I recalled the opening paragraph of the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages. I can’t say that I have a straightforward connection to make between “the passionate intensity of life” Huizinga describes and my own speculations the affective consequences of digital media, but I think there may be something worth getting at.

When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now. The distance between sadness and joy, between good and bad fortune, seemed to be much greater than for us; every experience had that degree of directness and absoluteness that joy and sadness still have in the mind of a child. Every even, every deed was defined in given and expressive forms and was in accord with the solemnity of a tight, invariable life style. The great events of human life—birth, marriage, death—by virtue of the sacraments, basked in the radiance of divine mystery. But even the lesser events—a journey, labor, a visit—were accompanied by a multitude of blessings, ceremonies, sayings, and conventions.

From the perspective of media ecology, the shift to print as the dominant cultural medium is interpreted as having the effect of tempering the emotional intensity of oral culture and tending instead toward an ironizing effect as it generates a distance between an emotion and its experssion. Digital media curiously scrambles these dynamics by generating an instantaneity of delivery that mimics the immediacy of physical presence. In 2019, I wrote in The New Atlantis about how digital media scrambles the pscyhodynamics (Walter Ong’s phrase) of orality and literacy in often unhelpful ways: “The Inescapable Town Square.” Here’s a bit from that piece:

The result is that we combine the weaknesses of each medium while losing their strengths. We are thrust once more into a live, immediate, and active communicative context — the moment regains its heat — but we remain without the non-verbal cues that sustain meaning-making in such contexts. We lose whatever moderating influence the full presence of another human being before us might cast on the passions the moment engendered. This not-altogether-present and not-altogether-absent audience encourages a kind of performative pugilism.

To my knowledge, Ivan Illich never met nor corresponded with Hannah Arendt. However, in my efforts to “break bread with the dead,” as Auden once put it, they’re often seated together at the table. In a similarly convivial spirit, here is an excerpt from a recent book by Alissa Wilkinson:

I learn from Hannah Arendt that a feast is only possible among friends, or people whose hearts are open to becoming friends. Or you could put it another way: any meal can become a feast when shared with friends engaged in the activity of thinking their way through the world and loving it together. A mere meal is a necessity for life, a fact of being human. But it is transformed into something much more important, something vital to the life of the world, when the people who share the table are engaging in the practices of love and of thinking.

Finally, here’s a paragraph from Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda recently highlighted by Jeffrey Bilbro:

In individualist theory the individual has eminent value, man himself is the master of his life; in individualist reality each human being is subject to innumerable forces and influences, and is not at all master of his own life. As long as solidly constituted groups exist, those who are integrated into them are subject to them. But at the same time they are protected by them against such external influences as propaganda. An individual can be influenced by forces such as propaganda only when he is cut off from membership in local groups. Because such groups are organic and have a well-structured material, spiritual, and emotional life, they are not easily penetrated by propaganda.

Cheers! Hope you are all well,