Nietzsche has something to say about everything. Including Facebook Distraction, an ‘impulse’ whose ‘vehemence’ we seek to combat, and for which he has found ‘not more than six essentially different methods.’ (‘The Dawn of Day‘, trans. JM Kennedy, Allen Unwin, 1924, Section 109)
It’s 630 AM or so; you’re awake, busy getting your cup of coffee ready. (Perhaps you’re up earlier like the truly virtuous or the overworked, which in our society comes to the same thing.) Your coffee made, you fire up your smartphone, laptop, tablet, or desktop, and settle down for the morning service at the altar. Your eyes light up, your antennae tingle in pleasurable anticipation: Facebook’s blue top ribbon features a tiny red square–which squats over the globe like a ginormous social media network–with a number inscribed in it; single figures is good, double figures is better. You look at Twitter: the Liberty Bell–sorry, the notifications icon–bears the weight of a similar number. Yet again: single figures good, double figures better. You look at GMail: your heart races, for that distinctive bold lettering in your inbox is present, standing out in stark contrast from the pallid type below; and there is a number here too, in parentheses after ‘Inbox’: single figures good, double figures better.
That’s what happens on a good day. (On a really good day, Facebook will have three red circles for you.) On a bad day, the Facebook globe is heartbreakingly red-less and banal; Twitter’s Liberty Bell is mute; and GMail’s Inbox is not bold, not at all. You reel back from the screen(s) in disappointment; your mood crashes and burns; the world seems empty and uninviting and cold and dark. Impatience, frustration, anxiety come rushing in through the portals you have now left open, suffusing your being, residing there till dislodged by the right kind of sensory input from those same screens: the appropriate colors, typefaces, and numbers need to make an appearance to calm and sooth your restless self. We get to work; all the while keeping an eye open and an ear cocked: a number appears on a visible tab, and we switch contexts and screens to check, immediately. An envelope appears on the corner of our screens; mail is here; we must tear open that envelope. Sounds too, intrude; cheeps, dings, and rings issue from our machines to inform us that relief is here. The silence of our devices can be deafening.
Our mood rises and falls in sync.
As is evident, our interactions with the human-computer interfaces of our communications systems have a rich phenomenology: expectations, desires, hopes rush towards with colors and shapes and numbers; their encounters produce mood changes and affective responses. The clever designer shapes the iconography of the interface with care to produce these in the right way, to achieve the desired results: your interaction with the system must never be affectively neutral; it must have some emotional content. We are manipulated by these responses; we behave accordingly.
Machine learning experts speak of training the machines; let us not forget that our machines train us too. By the ‘face’ they present to us, by the sounds they make, by the ‘expressions’ visible on them. As we continue to interact with them, we become different people, changed much like we are by our encounters with other people, those other providers and provokers of emotional responses.
Addiction is not caused by a drug or its chemical properties. Addiction has to do with the effect a drug produces for a given person in given circumstances—a welcomed effect which relieves anxiety and which (paradoxically) decreases capability so that those things in life which cause anxiety grow more severe. We are addicted to the experience the drug creates for us.
Addiction is clearly a process rather than a condition….it cannot be viewed as an all-or-nothing state of being, one that is unambiguously present or absent….Addiction is an extension of ordinary behavior—a pathological habit, dependence, or compulsion. Just how pathological or addictive that behavior is depends on its impact on a person’s life.
We cannot say that a given drug is addictive, because addiction is not a peculiar characteristic of drugs. It is…a characteristic of the involvement that a person forms with a drug….addiction is not limited to drugs….any activity that can absorb a person in such a way as to detract from the ability to carry through other involvements is….addictive. [As cited in ‘Seven Things We Must Understand About Addiction to Undo the Mistakes of the Past 40 Years‘]
Addiction is the name given to a complex set of behaviors understood as pathological in context. The relevant context is the overall economy of the patient/user/agent’s life: what are their goals and ends in life? What is their scale of values? Does the behavior in question threaten these? These questions answered, the characterization can begin.
Put this way, addiction is not, for instance, an isolated, abstract, relationship between a ‘user’ and a drug; put the drug and the user together, and it pops into view. Rather, it is highly particularized. This user, when using this drug, in this circumstances and environment, given his or her expressed desires, ends, and values, is engaging in addictive behavior because those same desires, ends, and values have been compromised by these behaviors. The user does not have ‘an addictive personality’; the drug is not ‘addictive’. Change the circumstances and environment, you might obtain a different set of behaviors; freely–this is crucial–change your desires, ends, and values in such a way that these new ones are not compromised, and that same set of behaviors is not ‘addictive.’
As Peele notes, many activities and substances can be addictive–as the notions of ‘workaholic’ and ‘sex addict’ and the increasingly frantic calls to ‘unplug, disconnect, and get off the grid’ seem to confirm. Certainly the rise of social-media-blocking programs–the modern version of the addict locking himself into a room to prevent another visit to the dealer down the street–is ample confirmation that we find our world-denying relationships to social media pathological in at least one dimension. Perhaps our modern culture’s greatest sleight of hand in this regard has been to relegate the partaking of recreational drugs to the bin of addictive behavior while valorizing other forms of addiction–like working eighty-hour weeks.
In the meantime, we can continue to congratulate ourselves for having made ‘addictive’ drugs illegal and for locking up their users, all the while blithely ignoring circumstance and context. Pathology should be unsurprising.
Anger is toxic, corrosive, and damaging; it is the poison we imbibe to hurt others. But like other substances described as ‘poisons’ anger is also intoxicating. As those who have ever felt ‘the red mist’ draw down over their eyes will readily testify, an outburst of anger is wholly controlling; a terrifying loss of self-control. But not one that is wholly unpleasant. And thus anger may be addictive too.
As the experience of happiness can be pleasurable, so can that of anger. This aspect of anger may partially explain its resilience in our emotional frameworks; part of the adaptive character of anger, its continuing survival, might be the pleasure it affords its ‘sufferers.’ Anger is difficult to control, to ‘reign in’; an acknowledgement of the pleasure anger provides may enable us to understand why ‘pointless anger’ and ‘raging’ and ‘venting’ exercise the hold they do. Those driven to drink wake up with hangovers; it is the price they pay for the pleasures of the night before. Those driven to anger may pay the price of broken relationships to experience the pleasures of the red mist. Those who require anger management require treatment in much the same way substance addicts do; they have found a source of once-pleasurable indulgence that has ‘gone wrong.’
There is little doubt about anger’s constructive qualities; we are exhorted to ‘get, and stay, angry’ if we want to bring about change in this world; we are asked to cultivate an emotion supposed corrosive. Anger appears as a vital tool of our emotional arsenal; a good slave and a bad master. Anger makes us uncomfortable; in seeking to rid ourselves of it, we find the motivation to bring about desired moral and political change. But anger provides too, a space for indulgence of exhilaration. The experience of anger can be feelings of power and moral superiority. These are not unpleasant emotions.
Anger, a primary moral emotion, cannot play the vital constructive role it plays in moral condemnation and outrage unless it provided an affective state that was ‘welcoming’, one that provided more ‘comfort’ than the state of non-arousal from which it represents a departure. Moral anger has the motivational and affective force that it does precisely because moral anger is pleasurable too. To feel that anger is to feel alive; to deny that anger is to anesthetize ourselves. The angry person told to ‘work through’ his anger, to ‘get over it,’ to ‘overcome it,’ is asked to substitute a bland, affect-less state for a pleasurable, emotionally charged one. Anger is not just frustration or fear writ large; anger is an uncontrollable itch, indulgence in which brings relief and pleasure. In anger we let ourselves be overcome, taken over. Such occupations will not proceed as smoothly as they do if they were taking place in an unreceptive environment.
We condemn some forms of pleasure-seeking—perhaps free soloing, which is dangerous, encourages reckless copycats, and leaves families anxious and scared. We might condemn the angry in similar terms. The addict’s pleasure seeking is condemnation-worthy when it interferes with life projects; his own and those of others. These are the grounds on which we may condemn the addict. And the angry.
At some point in every addict’s life comes the moment when what started as a recreational escape devolves into an endless reserve of negative physical, emotional, and social consequences. Those seeking recovery today call this drug-induced nadir a “bottom.”…The bottom that Sigmund experienced featured far more than the physical and mental ravages of consuming too much cocaine….Most recovering addicts insist that two touchstones of a successful recovery are daily routines and rigorous accountability.
Around 1896, Freud began to follow a constant pattern of awakening before 7 each morning and filling every moment until the very late evening hours with the demands of his ever enlarging practice…writing, lecturing, meeting with colleagues and ruminating over the theories he enunciated in such articulate literary style.
Markel goes on:
It appears unlikely that Sigmund used cocaine after 1896, during the years when he mapped out and composed his best-known and most influential works, significantly enriched and revised the techniques of psychoanalysis and…attempted to ‘explain some of the great riddles of human existence.’
Because I consider myself an excessively and easily distracted person, one who finds that his distraction makes him miserable, I was struck by the description of the ‘drug-induced nadir’ that Markel refers to. In noting my own state of distraction, I wrote:
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.
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 experience distraction as a fraying at the edges, a coming apart at the seams, a sundering of the center–whichever description you want to use, it’s all that in my feverish imaginings and experiencing of it.
Since my primary mode of distraction is ‘Net distraction, I’d like to offer another description it. I sometimes use ‘screeching’ or ‘scratching’ in trying to describe the activity in the inside of my cranium that makes me want to stand up and run away–and check mail or reload a page–from reading or writing. All too quickly, when working on a computer, I need ‘release’ and the act of moving the mouse so that something else appears on my screen promises relief. A change of screens, that’s all it is. And ironically, I can never take in whatever it is that I switch to. My mind is too blank at that moment, still perhaps processing residual irritation. Then, seething with rapidly accumulating anxiety about my still-on-the-burner work, I switch back. A little later, the ‘scratching’ begins again. I jump in response. Repeat ad nauseam.
And then, I thought about some of the techniques I’ve used to try to combat these these states of mind and being:
In the spring of 2009, as I sought to make a book deadline, I first tried to impose internet fasts on myself; I was only intermittently successful. I pulled off a few eight-hour abstentions, starting at 10AM and going till 6PM. I found them tremendously productive: I got long stretches of writing accomplished, and on my breaks, for diversion, read through a stack of unread periodicals. But I found it too hard; and soon, my resolve faltered, and I returned to the bad old days.
This past spring and summer, in an effort to inject some discipline into my writing habits, I began working in forty-five minute blocks; I would set a timer on my phone and resolve to work for that period without interruption. For a few weeks, this method worked astonishingly well. And then, again, my resolve decayed, and I slowly began to drift back to the constantly interrupted writing session, a nightmare of multiple tabs open at once, each monitored for update and interruption.
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…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.
I do realize, as many others have, that all of this sounds most like an incurable, pernicious addiction.
I take some solace in the fact that the strategies I have adopted–even if unsuccessful–at least put me in some very good company.
Today at lunch, a conversation about the difficulties of quitting smoking cigarettes and of persuading smokers to quit, about possible strategies for inducing smokers to leave their habit behind, and so on led quite naturally to a discussion about the nature of addiction and so-called ‘addictive personalities’ (and subsequently, a discussion of why some strategies for recovering from addiction work and some do not.) This discussion reminded me that recovery and rehabilitation from addiction can be thought of as a kind of indoctrination into new modes of behavior. In that regard, the following description of indoctrination, taken from Erik Erikson‘s Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, from the chapter ‘First Mass and Dead Ends’ describing Luther’s initiation into monkhood, is of much interest:
Indoctrination is charged with the task of separating the individual from the world long enough so that his former values become thoroughly disengaged from his intentions and aspirations; the process must create in him new convictions deep enough to replace much of what he has learned in childhood and practiced in his youth. Obviously, then, the training must be a kind of shock treatment, for it is expected to replace in a short time what has grown over many formative years; therefore, indoctrination must be incisive in its deprivations, and exact in its generous supply of encouragement. It must separate the individual from the world he knows and aggravate his introspective and self-critical powers to the point of identity-diffusion, but short of psychotic dissociation. At the same time it must endeavor to send the individual back into the world with his new convictions so strongly anchored in his unconscious that he almost hallucinates them as being the will of a godhead or the course of all history: something, that is, which was not imposed on him, but was in him all along, waiting to be freed.
Note: I have quoted previously from Erikson on this blog and will do so once more. And on a related note, Freud himself was an addict who recovered: from a habit of conspicuous cocaine consumption, one that he transcended by (among other things) a rigorous work schedule.