That Beehive in Your Head? That’s Just the Net Calling

Like many users of the Internet I suffer terribly from net-induced attention deficit disorder, that terrible affliction that causes one to ceaselessly click on ‘Check Mail’ buttons, switch between a dozen tabs, log-in-log-out, reload, and perhaps worst of all, seek my machine immediately upon waking in the mornings. My distraction isn’t unique, but it has its own particular flavors: I find myself visiting the same sites far too often, I have too many email accounts,I can only use one social media ‘tool’ at a time. What makes this deficit disorder intolerable is that I am simultaneously resentful and afflicted: I rage and rage against its hold on me, resolve to cut myself loose, but all too soon, stumble back to the keyboard, defeated.

I have tried many strategies for partial or total withdrawal: timed writing periods (ranging from 30 minutes to an hour); eight-hour fasts (I pulled off several of these in 2009, when I was working on A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents; to date, this remains my most successful, if not repeated since, intervention; since then, somehow, it has been all too easy to convince myself that when I work, I should stay online because, you know, I might need to ‘look something up’); weekend sabbaths (only accomplished once, when I logged off on a Friday night, and logged back on on Sunday morning); evening abstentions (i.e., logging off at the end of a workday and not logging back on when I reached home). None of these strategies has survived, despite each one of them bringing succor of a sort.

The effect of this distraction on me is not dissimilar to that experienced by other sufferers: I sometimes feel a beehive has taken up residence in my cranium; my attention span is limited to ludicrously short periods; my reading skills have suffered; writing, always a painful and onerous task, has become even more so. Because of the failure to attend to tasks at hand, my to-do, to-read, to-write, to-attend-to lists grow longer and cast ever more accusing glances my way. Worse, their steadily increasing stature ensures that picking a starting point from any of them becomes a task fraught with ever-greater anxiety: as I begin one task, I become aware that several others are crying out for my attention, causing me to either hurry through the one I have started, or worse, to abandon it, and take up something else.

I do realize, as many others have, that all of this sounds most like an incurable, pernicious addiction. But there seems something terribly banal about all of this: an inability to attend to that which is difficult and anxiety-causing is hardly a novel disease. Procrastination has been around ever since the Good Lord took all of six (or was it seven?) days to get on with creating the world. And yet, that doesn’t seem to reduce any of its personal urgency. I haven’t given up hope yet, especially as more drastic solutions offer themselves: ten-day meditation retreats, for instance. If I can stop checking email for long enough, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Note: In case you were wondering, yes, even as I wrote this post, I interrupted myself several times: to check email, switch tabs, and make myself a cup of tea. The last-mentioned brought some calming relief.

8 thoughts on “That Beehive in Your Head? That’s Just the Net Calling

  1. Excellent points. Relatedly: Rather than empowering new forms of solidarity and political activism, the web may just distract us from them. As Jodi Dean says in Blog Theory:

    “As multiple-recombinant ideas and images circulate, stimulate, they distract us from the antagonisms constitutive of contemporary society, inviting us to think that each opinion is equally valid, each option is equally likely, and each click is a significant political intervention. The deluge of images and announcements, enjoining us to react, to feel, to forward them to our friends, erodes critical-theoretical capacities – aren’t they really just opinions anyway? Feelings dressed up in jargon? Drowning in plurality, we lose the capacity to grasp anything like a system. React and forward, but don’t by any means think.”

    Click to access dean–blog-theory.pdf

    The distractions of the internet are also a substitute for actually experiencing and reacting against, say, job precarity or lack of insurance. We can think concretely of, say, a laid off worker, who now makes minimum wage, but who really doesn’t have much need for vacations or consumer goods any more, since a pink tractor in Farmville only costs $4 and is so much more interesting and cheap. An SEC advisor endorses this:

    “Computer games have progressed to the point where they are approaching the level of Nozick’s experience machine. They allow us to be anyone we want in whatever world we want, accompanied by whomever we want, all with full sensory feedback. If you think you used to burn a lot of your free waking hours with your jumping between email, video games, Facebook, and HBO back in 2010”

    The question becomes, I suppose, is to what extent is web surfing and reading akin to a distracting “Bejeweled” session. I keep writing my book in the hope of finding the common thread animating the dozens of articles, hundreds of blog posts, and thousands of tweets I’ve done. And perhaps it is only the pointless jouissance that occasionally motivates that activity that keeps the productive task of organizing and synthesizing information going.

  2. I belong to a couple of clubs where cellphones are prohibited. It’s the greatest thing in the world. I get there, turn my phone off, leave it in the car, and check out for hours. I highly recommend it. just leave it somewhere.

  3. I don’t find the internet that bad, which is perhaps a sign I’m drinking digital Kool-Aid by the gallon. But I’ve also always worked best, at any task, by frequently hitting my mental reset button. The best way to fix a sentence that is giving me a problem is to ignore it for two minutes. (Bigger problems need to be ignored for longer periods of time.) And I’m not sure if my attention span has declined or if I’ve simply become more demanding because I have more choices. Tell me what you have to say and why I should care RIGHT NOW or I’m gone. Folks really have to earn my attention nowadays, as of course I have to earn theirs.

  4. Peter,

    I suspect you are more disciplined than me – I get scattered quite quickly so surfing the ‘net is really an invitation to disaster. I do like the idea of ignoring problematic sentences though. (incidentally, that last point of yours needs to be applied to my reading habits – I think I need to stop reading some books rather than carrying on to the end.)

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