I’m stuck in an algorithm loop of internet articles circulating around questions of attention span, concentration, productivity, mindfulness and, of course technology as the day’s greatest blessing and curse. I’m in the loop because the questions resonate. I return to the algorithm and the algorithm returns me to resonance. The loop is interesting in a passing and superficial way, but intrinsically partial.
There is nonetheless an opportunity for critique. The argument common to most of these combinations of pop science and cultural critique is that technology is damaging to some part of our humanity: usually our creativity, our patience, our kindness. Always our productivity. In this loop, meaningfulness is connected to accomplishment, preferably in your job-cum-career.
For those who take the social seriously, claims about the impact of tech on humanity have an obvious appeal. Humanity, whatever that is, is shaped by materiality, including technology. The material world is expressed in and through culture and structures the relations through which individual and collective subjectivities emerge. When materiality changes – through tech or revolution – then then so does our humanity. Nonetheless, these arguments inevitably carry a subterranean “kids these days…” undertone. In my day – or, more likely, in my grandfather’s day and my grandmother’s kitchen – we moved slowly, related slowly, focused carefully and took time to create meaningful lives.
Empirically, the problem is a lack of comparative psychological data. Epistemologically, the problem is poor research design: without a universal conception of what the experience of meaningfully living is, we cannot even conceptualize the shape of the comparative psychological data we lack. Ethically, there are no grounds for a universal conception of what constitutes living meaningfully.
Politically, these questions orient thinking and critique toward the epiphenomenal. As per Marx, technology enables, indeed forces, specific social relations. The history of social relations, however, has a continuity and a morphology that extends beyond the tech of the day. Critiquing the loop means pulling back from the questions it poses to find the continuity beyond the tech: capitalist exploitation and patriarchy. Forget about whether your grandfather watched TV while eating. Ask instead about the relation consumption has to work, to profit and to power. Forget about whether your grandmother lovingly cooked from scratch with easily-pronounced ingredients in a tech-free kitchen. Ask instead whether she would have preferred to be somewhere else entirely. Forget about how the tech of the day, transfixing but transient, impacts your attention span, your capacity for mindfulness. Ask instead about the continuity of social relations that outlive any given tech.