refusing the screen / reclaiming attention

The kingdoms of experience
In the precious wind they rot
While paupers change possessions
Each one wishing for what the other has got
And the princess and the prince
Discuss what's real and what is not
It doesn't matter inside the Gates of Eden
- Bob Dylan, Gates of Eden

Bear with me as I take you down a little rabbit hole with me, which I promise (well, I hope) can be useful to all of us, as we hole up our home offices. In England, we are currently immobilized by yet another COVID lockdown, and it's as good a time as ever to reflect on work, life, and the digital world.

This e-mail is long, and that's somewhat intentional. You don't have to read it (that's your choice)! But I hope that as I go along you will discover why I haven't made this punchier -- why I've arguably broken all the rules of good electronic communication. In exchange for tolerating my verbosity, I can assure you that I will not send out another newsletter like this in the near future. So, you have plenty of time to leave it, unread, in your inbox until you would like to return to it, if ever. It is not urgent. It is for a moment when you want to and can be slow about things.

***

In 2018 I became a volunteer "digital helper" at the Oxfordshire County Library, a public library in Oxford city centre. Many people probably walk past the library on a daily basis without noticing it is there. The spot is architecturally unremarkable -- a generic glass-fronted building with a drab revolving door signaling conventional, institutional sterility. It could be a clinic. Or a post office. It just happens to be a library. In recent years, an ambitious renovation of Oxford's central Westgate Shopping Centre demolished most of the library's familiar retail surroundings, but somehow left the stalwart County Library in tact. As a result, the library -- now more invisible than ever -- remained, guarding the entrance to this gleaming commercial monument, tucked between an Urban Outfitters and a Comptoir Libanais.

Inconspicuous municipal libraries like this one have gotten a bit more attention lately as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Such public spaces have gained a degree of notoriety as infection mitigation efforts have effectively annihilated them. It turns out that they were of greater importance to us as a society than we realized, always offering more than what was advertised on the label. In the case of libraries, it turned out they were more than book lenders; they also gave people a safe and quiet place to read, think, or pass time. And crucially for this pandemic moment, they provided free internet access, often to people with limited or no access to computers and the internet at home, or to people with limited digital skills who also need one-to-one assistance.

That's what I did as a digital helper -- I helped people (lots of people) use the library computers and internet. My exact role varied depending on the needs of the library customer. But usually, I spent long hours showing people how to type a CV in Microsoft Word or set up an e-mail account for the first time. I would painstakingly talk them through each keypress, translating slowly and carefully the visual vernacular of the digital world. ("See that little square with a line sticking through it? That means 'compose a message'. Click on that...")

One day I was helping an elderly man who wanted to create an excel spreadsheet to collate all of his favorite poems and YouTube videos of instrumental music (it was a specific genre, but I can't remember what it was now). A friend had shown him that you can find tons of poetry and music online, and he was simultaneously astonished and enchanted. He wanted to curate his own collection and share it. When I showed him that you can "drag-and-drop" images and URLs into the spreadsheet, he lit up with delight. "Show me again!" he said. But this time, when I dragged a photo (a public domain image of a poet) over to the spreadsheet, the screen froze. A small spinning wheel (the wheel of death -- you know the one) appeared, and all we could do was wait. This happens sometimes on the library computers -- the system can suddenly seize up, and customers complain about this clunky service all the time.

After a few seconds, I said to the man, "I'm really sorry, sometimes the computers here are so slow! Hopefully it won't be long now, and then the photo we chose will appear right there in the spreadsheet." The man was just gazing placidly at the screen, his hands folded loosely in his lap. He turned to me, smiling, and said, "What are you apologizing for? This is an absolute miracle! I don't care how long we have to wait."

I think about that digital help session frequently. I spend a lot of my day-to-day life feeling impatient, as though everything is urgent. If a website link takes even a few seconds too long to load, often I will just close it. I probably didn't need to see it anyway. Or I can come back later (usually I don't). I watch upload progress bars with irritation, wanting to send that e-mail attachment just a little bit faster.

Maybe you've felt the same way from time to time? Maybe you weren't aware of it. This impatience, I think, is mostly unconscious. We call this the "digital age," but it is equally the "age of immediacy." As many early media theorists suggested, digitization has changed our relationship with time (compressed it). And as recent, highly publicized plagues of mediated disinformation have demonstrated, digitization has changed our relationship to ourselves, to the truth, and to one another.

***

As you might know if you're reading this, I study digital inequality "from the ground up," as anthropologists like to say. In other words, my methods start with watching and listening to people, usually in ordinary, mundane situations. And then I progress to asking questions of people -- about their lives, how they feel, what they're doing. From that experience, I start to look for patterns and themes, and from those themes I might start to "theorize" (applying my own analytical lens to what I've observed in the interest of making it useful to others, like policymakers or other researchers). But generally, anthropologists steer clear of grand explanatory narratives. The diversity of human life and experience is too nuanced for that. And I am a staunch evangelist of nuance.

Often I notice different things about my data at different times. Or, different pieces of data begin to stand out to me over time. That's because it is not easy or natural to inhabit someone else's perspective on the world. But it is interesting when it happens; those insights can shatter conventional ways of knowing and doing. And they can jolt us out of complacency.

The man with his spreadsheet has often pushed his way to the forefront of my mind because, I think, it was a clear example of how I hadn't seen things from his perspective. He, on the margins of digital literacy, and I, a "digital native," had completely different conceptions of time and the role of digital technology in our lives. He has loomed large recently in my memory, undoubtedly because of the almost complete digitization of everyday life under lockdown. It is remarkable (miraculous, even!), but it also doesn't feel particularly healthy.

The digital world today is pervasive and unavoidable, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified this reality. We are all compelled to be online -- for work, education, and even the most basic everyday services like banking or welfare. At the same time, the digital world we experience has evolved substantially under the influence of powerful internet companies that capitalize on our connectivity. The more time we spend online, the more money this digital economy generates. This is what has come to be called the "attention economy." Our attention (time spent using digital platforms, which is translated into data) is valuable, and this economy intentionally distorts our incentives and behaviors to occupy our time and generate profit.

Of course, it’s not all bad: we gain a lot of exciting and useful digital resources that make many aspects of life more convenient. But this convenience also comes at the cost of some seriously problematic outcomes for the natural environment, our bodies, and our minds. So, I have been contemplating how to acknowledge and address the issue of "attention" and "balance" in my own research on digital inequality and poverty.

Most of the time, when we talk about the digital divide, we mean the gap between people who have internet access and don't, or the gap between people with sufficient digital skills and those without. Closing the gap is the goal. Greater "equality" is the reward (supposedly). But. But! If we take into account the experiences, challenges, and perspectives of people who fall on "the wrong side" of the digital divide, we can see it's more nuanced than that.

We might ask: what's so great about joining a digital world dominated, as it is, by commercial interests that have entrenched an extractive and addictive logic to essential platforms? (Yes, I would begrudgingly suggest that even Facebook should be seen as "essential" in our current media ecosystem.) And arguably, this logic disproportionately disadvantages digitally and socio-economically marginalized people, who are targeted by predatory loan schemes and healthcare scams, penalized by algorithmic credit scoring, and profiled by their digital footprints. (I haven't hyperlinked any of this essay because hyperlinking is one of the ways I would argue our attention to text becomes fragmented, but I have included a list of relevant references at the end.)

So as a researcher interested in meaningful digital equality, not just in universal access or skills, I have been asking myself how digital inclusion -- getting and keeping people online -- can also empower people to make meaningful choices about how technology does and should affect their lives and our planet. This is how my thinking goes: we’re not really achieving digital equality, justice, or fairness if by helping people join the digital world, we’re also subjecting them to potentially greater exploitation due to the foundational, extractive logic of digital platforms. In fact, couldn't challenging this logic help all of us achieve a better relationship with the digital world?

I think answering this question could be the "curb cut" of the digital age -- a design change to benefit the "extreme use case" (the marginalized user) that actually benefits us all.

Perhaps it’s even more urgent to think about these issues when we’ve already fully bought into the convenience of the digital world. Don’t get me wrong -- Microsoft Teams and Zoom have been incredibly useful platforms in this socially distanced period. But for most of us, we haven’t managed to strike a balance between the digital and the non-digital. We’re all-in, connected 24/7.

This line of thinking has led me to explore a small but growing body of literature on resisting the "attention economy." And just in case this concept appeals to your screen-weary eyeballs and distracted brains as much as it does to mine, I'd like to share some of the things I've learned so far in this exploration...

***

Rob Kitchin and Alistair Fraser's recent book, Slow Computing (Bristol University Press, 2020), lays out the argument that the digital world we know today has been built on a foundation of two related forces: acceleration and extraction. Acceleration is the compression of time facilitated by digital connectivity, and the time pressures that this compression puts on us. Namely, digital tech puts pressure on us to respond (in various ways) and lose control of our personal time. This urgency and immediacy leads to an overemphasis on the present and a reversion to instinctual, rather than reflective, critical thinking. Extraction, in Kitchin and Fraser’s account, refers to the "increasing capture of everyday life as a continual stream of data" (p. 54), a concept that has gained notoriety in recent years due to scandals like Cambridge Analytica. Extraction leads to a "data-mentality" whereby we move through the world knowing that we are data subjects, and this affects our decisions and behaviors. This extractive regime also feels unavoidable or inevitable, making it easier to just "go along with it" rather than inconvenience ourselves or others by opting out.

Long story short, if you’re feeling the screen burnout these days, it's probably about more than just the countless hours you’ve clocked on Zoom since last March. It's rooted in the whole digital ecosystem and how it has gradually re-wired our social and professional lives.

In Slow Computing, Kitchin and Fraser present the concept of "slowness" as an alternative to the accelerating and extracting logics of our day-to-day digital lives. It’s "a way to characterize a type of response to digital life that prioritizes your needs and interests, as well as the public good for society as a whole" (p.11), based on "a general underlying philosophy […] that has a built-in ethics of care to oneself, to each other, and to the planet. It’s not simply a matter of changing pace, but also changing perspectives about what matters and then trying to enact a more sustainable, enjoyable, and fulfilling lifestyle" (p.13).

Kitchen and Fraser call us to go against the grain, to resist in small ways that can help us reclaim our autonomy from pressures and punishments of a relentlessly (technologically) connected life. But importantly, slow computing isn’t about completely shunning the digital world or disconnecting entirely. I think we all know that such a position -- of total withdrawal -- is unrealistic. (One reason, perhaps, why practices of "digital detox" have morphed into a commercial aesthetic, a self-indulgent veneer masquerading as transformative ethics.) Instead, achieving slowness is about approaching connectivity with care and, crucially, attention.

That's the focus of Jenny Odell's compelling memoir-self-help-essay-collection-mish-mash How to Do Nothing (Melville House Publishing, 2019). She argues for reclaiming our "attention" for ourselves. Echoing the impacts of "acceleration," she points to how all of our time has become "productive" time, and yet we are often less productive. Our digital lives are defined by how much stuff we can cram into the smallest amount of (network) time. But if we do more of "nothing," Odell suggests, we might actually achieve more: higher quality work, greater satisfaction -- even happiness -- and real social change. Like Fraser and Kitchin, Odell isn't extolling the unmitigated virtues of a life of total reclusion (she roundly critiques the inefficacy of commune movements throughout history). "Some hybrid reaction is needed," she writes. "We have to be able to do both: to contemplate and participate, to leave and always come back, where we are needed" (p. 61).

I think anthropology is a "slow" discipline. It hinges on stepping outside one's familiar surroundings to see a different point of view. Odell's observes that the archetypal recluse or sage retreats in order to gain greater knowledge of the self and the world. "Mainstream society needs the perspective of its outsiders and recluses to illuminate problems and alternatives that aren't visible form the inside" (pp. 55-56). Without traveling to distant shores or adopting a hermetic existence, we can all practice this removal within the defined sphere of our own lives by changing routines -- resisting the monotonous conditioning of "how things are."

"We absolutely require distance and time to be able to see the mechanisms we thoughtlessly submit to. More than that [...] we need distance and time to be functional enough to do or think anything meaningful at all." (p. 60)

Stepping away or out of the everyday can be not only personally liberating, but radically and collectively energizing. As our bodies disappear behind the screen, argues Odell, "so does our ability to empathize" (p. 24). Only by achieving some distance from this urgency-inducing culture can we imagine projects for gender, racial, environmental, and economic justice. But, she also points out (importantly) that refusal and rejection are often only choices available to those who can "afford" it -- in other words, those of us with a "degree of latitude" (pg. 82) either on the individual level, where we won't face significant financial or personal damage due to our refusal, or at a societal level, where we won't be disproportionately penalized for our noncompliance. Indeed, refusal is often a luxury.

But that does not render it pointless.

In the early days of the pandemic, there was a great deal of optimism that this sudden shift in life-as-normal might cause us to reflect on what really matters, to slow down a bit. Maybe we would come out of this with a healthier relationship to work, travel, consumerism…?! But in many ways, the pandemic has intensified the de-humanizing, de-materializing effects of digital connectivity on our work and personal lives, as we have come to depend on networked technologies ever more completely. There is no better time to reflect on the promise and pitfalls of technology. With many people deeply disadvantaged by digital exclusion, it is easy to treat connectivity simply as an essential resource that everyone deserves and that we are lucky to have. But digital equality is both about expanding connectivity and also about being able to choose to disconnect.

Acts of individual refusal can potentially restore some "digital balance" to our lives -- balance that many of us feel we desperately need. But collective refusal can register on a more public scale. It can shift practices and discourses. What responsibility, then, do those of us who are digital natives, fully connected, and digitally literate have in demanding a recalibration of our relationship with technology?

We have quite literally bought into the digital world as we know it, but the digital world as we know it needs work. Digital equality, then, cannot simply be about getting as many people as possible to buy into this digital world. It also has to be about changing the world itself. Practices, like "slowness" and "refusal" offer avenues for doing that work. But they are open mainly to those of us who have access, who are already all-in. If feeling a little less stressed, impatient, hurried, and distracted were not motivation enough on a selfish (and I use this term neutrally, to mean focused on the self) level, then maybe this societal imperative will be compelling.

I chose the epigraph for this letter because I like its cloudy tincture of sharp critique and ambiguity. Our kingdoms of experience are rotting in the wind, and in that negation -- that absence of... what is it? maybe, empathy? -- an entitled few are left aimlessly debating "what is real and what is not" from a parapet of privilege. A debate so abstract that it amounts to nothing, but so eternal it must amount to everything.

Today, such debates about reality inherently implicate technology and our relationship to digitization. We might already reside in the parapet, captivated by or captive to our own point of view. Imagining and building alternative realities will invariably demand some new perspectives and some acts of refusal -- to make space not just for a more equitable distribution of digital resources but for a more equitable ethics of digital life.

"Attention is a state of openness that assumes there is something new to be seen," writes Odell. "It is also true that this state must resist our tendency to declare our observations finished--to be done with it" (p. 112).

So, I invite you to look into the ordinary corners of everyday life, and wonder at what you will find has always been there.

Thank you for giving me your attention. :)

// Practical Refusal

(Some small things we can all do to live more balanced digital lives, 100% lifted from the books referenced in this letter.)

  • Step away from non-critical work out-of-hours; put up a (friendly!) away message saying you are disconnecting until X time

  • Designate some spaces in your workplace (or home!) network-free spaces, where you do not use networked devices and instead pay attention to other things or other people

  • Reduce the number of "connections" you follow or maintain on social media to just one or two degrees of familiarity (the people you actually talk to, in real life)

  • Do not take networked devices into your bedroom: do not use your phone as an alarm, and try not to turn on your networked devices until after breakfast each day

  • Put your devices on airplane mode or turn off the wifi for designated periods of the day to set aside focused time for work, study, or leisure

  • Switch off your home wifi router for a defined period of time each evening and/or weekend

  • Instead of streaming TV or movies and making spontaneous decisions about what to watch, plan what you will watch that day or that week ahead of time; download those shows/films to your devices so you can watch in the evening without wifi (or the stress of making a decision/binging on one show)

  • Take an inventory of your daily tech use and determine whether you can replace any tech with analogue strategies, like using a paper agenda, or reading a paper newspaper

  • Reorganize the applications on your devices, placing distracting apps further "away" from the home screen

  • Schedule meetings using "clock time" rather than "network time" – that means resisting the urge to schedule things on the fly and instead scheduling meetings well in advance and sticking to the schedule

  • Practice exercises in attention -- focus on a familiar place and notice the unfamiliar things about it; focus on something until it is utterly boring, and stay with it; push past the boredom to find something new, and interesting about it

**Remember: these practices will be difficult, and that is by design. We can only do so much alone -- refusal is easier the more we do it together. So, shift your own personal practices and your expectations of others' behaviors and practices. And forgive yourself when you fail. Taking it slow in a digitized world is hard. But resistance is rooted in the small things!**

// Reading (and Listening) List


Kitchin, R., & Fraser, A. (2020). Slow Computing: Why We Need Balanced Digital Lives. Bristol University Press.

Odell, J. (2019). How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Melville House Publishing.

Digital Dystopia: How Algorithms Punish the Poor by Ed Pilkington in The Guardian

High-Tech Homelessness by Virginia Eubanks in American Scientist

The Devastating Consequences of Being Poor in the Digital Age by Mary Madden in The New York Times

Algorithms Designed to Fight Poverty Can Actually Make It Worse by Virginia Eubanks in Scientific American

How algorithms rule our working lives by Cathy O’Neil in The Guardian

COVID-19 and the digital divide in the UK by Geoff Watts in The Lancet (full disclosure: I’m quoted in this)

COVID-19: The Need for a Social Vaccine by Fran Baum and Sharon Friel in Insight+

Curb Cuts - Episode 308 of the 99% Invisible podcast

// P.S.

Give it your all: Find something you're as passionate about as this PE teacher is about tying shoelaces.

***