Above via Zoi Korai.
We expect James Joyce to work at Google. (Don’t we?) We expect writers to respond to the news. On top of that, as we all more or less know by now, we expect our news to be free, too — to the point where we’ve been ruthlessly condescending to those who argue otherwise. We expect Jonathan Franzen to — well, not be Jonathan Franzen. (The much harsher version of that being: we expect Justine Sacco to simply not exist.) We expect comedians to be public intellectuals. We expect justice to come down like a lightning strike, even for unexpectedly benign things. We don’t seem to expect Greece to shake off the slumber of a seemingly smothering austerity in a redemptive, heroic fashion, nor Spain — as if our previous implicit knowledge of the two countries was more than enough and more than sufficient, even though we want to re-quote Leonard Cohen reminding a crowd here that ‘a credit rating is not a country’ — and we’re ignorant of the sight of children stealing food off the backs of trucks in Venezuela or of ISIS car bombing Iraqis out shopping for Eid.
Not only do we seem to have no particular concern about how our ‘orienting response’ is best mediated in the world at large — and by ‘orienting response,’ we mean the way in which we respond to a change in our environment: the television turning on, music beginning to play, and so on — but our sense of how the orienting response functions in relation to our perception of the ways in which we’re distracted seems ill-defined as well: what is the difference between productive daydreaming and an unhealthy manipulation of the orienting response? How should that relationship be best defined? Can we sufficiently daydream when Dunkin’ Donuts sprays the smell of coffee onto a bus in South Korea? Or when we’re passing through a London Tube station that’s been taken over by cat photos, all Adbusters-like?
Matthew Crawford of the University of Virginia has argued for the need for “an attentional commons,” which may yet still be a necessary thing, given how attention has seemed to make itself manifest in things like ‘The Year Of Outrage,’ but what if the way in which the internet’s role in clamoring so insistently and expertly for our attention is something of a fiction? Or, rather, isn’t quite the way in which we’re currently looking at it?
Using airplane crashes as their control, a recent study published by The Oxford Internet Institute suggests that our memories online often follow a more associative path: it isn’t about what the new thing is, per se; it’s about what the new thing reminds you of or about. (Or, as they put it, “We find that source events generate a flow of attention to previous events, which is even greater than the attention given to the source itself.”)
So: one way in which we can read all of this is — we’re distracted, and then we think of something else until we’re distracted again.
In effect, we’re defining some of the things that end up underpinning binge-watching; we’re defining something we happen to remember — but we’re defining it without having a sense of what our cut-off point is, our end of the internet, and — barring a redesign — I feel like we should. I feel like we should all have the parachute equivalent of heading off to Glen Canyon at our disposal.
So how does a network that is capable of reflecting memory’s ability to interact with it itself interact with the orienting effect, and how does that — in turn — interact with the idea of an audience’s expectations?
I’d argue that the kinds of seemingly disorienting audience expectations highlighted at the beginning are indicators of either of an as-yet undefined artform that has yet to take hold that will take hold, that there is an artistic expression of the moment that has yet to find an audience, or that there is a greater implicit demand for the arts than we realize; that — when we spend all day working on the internet, with everyone jockeying over an implicit space to call their own in a perpetually changing swirl of fragments, with the J-curve of social media use showing no particular sign of abating just yet, “the world needs poetry because the world needs anything that will allow us to pause for a moment and take in feeling,” which is something striking the poet Elizabeth Alexander recently said on the podcast Grow Big Always. (And I’m partly alighting on this because of studies that suggest that anger is the emotion that spreads most easily over social media, of the way in which animated .gifs took off, and so much more. I’m further alighting on this for the way in which transcendence is framed here in relation to ‘a crisis of modernity.’)
And she’s not wrong. So when you’re feeling the implicit pressure of “the attention economy” at work, when you’re online and sharing something from either 30 Rock or Broad City implying that the week ought to be over already, stop for a second, think about how you’re feeling, and perhaps do your best to avoid typing into Google, “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”