The Phenomenology Of Encounters With Notification Icons

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.

The Virtuous, Ubiquitous Skipping Of Lines And Pages

In Immortality (HarperCollins, New York, 1990), Milan Kundera writes,

If a reader skips a single sentence of my novel he won’t be able to understand it, and yet where in the world will you find a reader who never skips a line? Am I not myself the greatest skipper of lines and pages?

As a child I was frequently accused by my ‘friends’–never by my family–of skipping lines and pages; perhaps because I was thought to read quickly, too quickly. I detected, even then, some envy in these accusations, some resentment (or ‘ressentiment‘) even as I never took myself to be engaging in any bragging about my supposed speed-reading prowess. I defended myself against these charges strenuously but they stuck, hammering away at me, casting doubt and suspicion upon my assessments of my reading abilities and accomplishments. It made me hyper-sensitive about making sure I had read every single word and line in the books I consumed; those accusations bred a peculiar sort of anxiety and insecurity. (Even though, as Kundera notes, everyone skips a line or two.)

Years later, when I first encountered ‘difficult texts,’ ones that required working through, I was still sensitive to this charge; a book was either read cover to cover, or it was not read at all.  This immediately induced a crisis: I was now constantly a failure. I could not read many of these texts from cover to cover; they were too long and doing so took up too much time that had to be spent elsewhere; they were too difficult and simply could not be engaged with at the level required for too long; and so on. As a child, when I was confronted with a book that did not catch my fancy, I dropped it and took up another. But as an adult, ‘dropping’ a book–or skipping lines and pages–became an indicator of all sorts of moral and intellectual failure; there was no virtuous ‘flitting around.’ It was all straight ahead, nose to the wheel, or it was not reading at all.

Now, as I look at the many unread books on my shelves, the length of my wishlist on Amazon, and the size of the directories that house the various electronic books I have procured through methods of varying legality, it seems that tactical and strategic skipping of lines, passages, and perhaps entire texts is a practical and intellectual necessity. So much yet to read; so little time left; perhaps a little flitting around is in order? As my dear friend Doris McIlwain once said to me, “you need to be a child again; drop the book you don’t like and move to the one you want.” And yet, old and new guilt persists: I am not a serious enough reader (or worse, ‘scholar’), an easy fear to entertain when one is afflicted with the impostor syndrome; I’ve always been this way; I’ve been persistently inauthentic; and so on. As I noted in an older post, these fears tap into a host of others, all concerned with whether we possess the requisite nous and inner resources with which to deal with this life’s challenges. Reading being a particularly acute one; here we find a very particular challenging of our supposed virtues.

Hermione Lee On Wasting Nothing

The Art of Biography series of interviews at The Paris Review includes the following exchange between Hermione Lee and Louisa Thomas in No. 4:


This is something you consistently look at—the ways in which a period that is commonly considered a dead period in a writer’s life feeds into their work. I’m thinking especially of Cather and her journalism, and Wharton and the marriage years before she writes.


There’s a wonderful quotation from Proust, which that great Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen uses. She puts it in her preface to The Last September. “It is those periods of existence which are lived through carelessly, unwillingly, or in boredom, that most often fructify into art.” Isn’t it excellent that that can be the case. My friend Victoria Glendinning has a motto she uses, which I sometimes steal—“Nothing is wasted.” It’s a very reassuring and consoling idea, even if it isn’t always true. Think of those terrible phases in your life when you’re just grinding along, or you’re missing your way, or everything seems arid and disappointing. It helps if you can say to yourself, But something will come out of this. Penelope Fitzgerald wrote a note to herself that I take to heart—“Experiences aren’t given to us to be ‘got over,’ otherwise they would hardly be experiences.” [links added.]

This is very encouraging, I must admit, for someone quite used to ‘grinding along’ and ‘missing [my] way’ all the while thinking that ‘everything seems arid and disappointing.’ Perhaps that ‘experience’ itself will form the basis of what I write in the future as indeed, my terrible distraction and attention-deficit, which keeps me from writing and reading as well or as often as I would like to, has served as subject for several posts on that topic.

There is a more fundamental point at play in Lee’s remarks. As the friends and families of writers ruefully note, everything serves as raw material for writing. If the dramatic, the astonishing, the spectacular, and the curious can be so pressed into service, then why not the boring, the mundane, the tedious, the weekday? They too make us and our lives into what they are.

As for material being ‘wasted,’ every book project of mine generates, besides a manuscript file, a ‘bit bucket‘ file, a space where I keep all that I excised from the book: sterile notes, irrelevant asides and digressions, redundancies, orphans of truncated chains of thought. This collection can grow alarmingly large; my current ‘bit bucket,’ for a book whose notes–I will not dignify that misshapen mass with the appellation ‘draft’–run to about eighty thousand words, is almost seven thousand words and twenty-three pages long.  These buckets have, over the years, not been pressed into service; the material collected in them has not found its way into other writings of mine. But neither have I deleted them. I have not given up on them. Here, I’m a hoarder; driven by the same spirit that animates Lee remarks, I persist in hoping that they will ‘fructify’, if not into ‘art’ then at least into the passably readable.

Repent, The End Of Yet Another Year Is Nigh

It is June 30th, 2015; half the year is over. Depending on your age, you will react to this news with indifference or a curious mix of panic, terror, and melancholy. My reaction, as you might guess by my decision to write this post today, veers–sharply–toward the latter.

Forty might be the new thirty, or perhaps fifty is the new forty, but whatever the latest form of the pithy consolation handed out to those who sense the downward slope on life’s hill, there is no getting around, over, or under, the sense of the precipitous acceleration of the clocks as one ages. The theory of special relativity has something to say about this, I’m sure, obsessed as it is with observers, clocks, measurements, and sometime twins doomed to age at differential rates, but the central problem at hand can be described quite easily: the days feel too short, the bright light seems to be approaching a little too quickly. William James, in a characteristically melancholy mood–don’t let his sometimes sunny optimism and flowing turn of phrase fool you–noted that “the days and weeks smooth themselves out…and the years grow hollow and collapse.”

(As the James reference shows, many bright minds have concerned themselves with this puzzling business, and they haven’t stopped:

Friedman, W.J. and S.M.J. Janssen. 2010. Aging and the speed of time. Acta Psychologica 134: 130-141.

Janssen, S.M.J., M. Naka, and W.J. Friedman. 2013. Why does life appear to speed up as people get older? Time & Society 22(2): 274-290.

Wittmann, M. and S. Lehnhoff. 2005. Age effects in perception of time. Psychological Reports 97: 921-935.)

My particular morose take on the rapid passage of time is most acutely manifest in my worrying about about tasks completed or left unfinished and fretting over how to adequately allocate and manage time between my various personal, professional, intellectual, and existential responsibilities. The most depressing variant of this activity was my extremely imprecise calculation of the number of unread books I could see on my shelves, my Amazon wish list, and my ‘Downloads’ folder. As you might have guessed, my arithmetic confirmed my worst years: There are not enough years left for me to read them all.

My writing on this blog shows I’m a little obsessed by the speedy passage of time. Once–in a post written on July 1st, 2012–I made note of how travel slows down time, and on another occasion, on how a mere change of environment can have the same effect. These maneuvers are of limited efficacy: vacations do not last forever, and the unfamiliar, for an adult, all too rapidly becomes the familiar (that’s part of what it means to be an adult, the growing ease of the contextualization of life’s offerings.) I had hoped my daughter’s birth would slow clocks down, but as our family’s marking of two and half years of her life last week showed, that hasn’t helped either. Indeed, as many parents keep admonishing me, I’d better hurry up and take more photos and videos of these years, supposedly ‘the best ones of all.’

Time is running out; I’d better wrap up, and go do something.

The Clock-Watcher’s Punch In The Gut

Last Monday, as I taught my graduate seminar on The Nature of Law, one of the students in attendance turned to look at the clock: we still had some forty-five minutes to go in a two-hour meeting. As I saw this, I experienced a familiar feeling, one that, as usual, temporarily, if not visibly, incapacitated me, tempting me to call a halt to the proceedings right there and then. I didn’t, of course, but neither did I just get over it. (I’m blogging about it, am I not?)

I taught a university-level class for the first time, as a graduate teaching assistant, almost twenty-seven years ago. Thirteen years ago, I became a full-time member of the teaching faculty at Brooklyn College. All of which is to say: I’ve been teaching a long time. But no matter how old that gets, the clock-watching student always manages to cut through the haze and deliver a punch in my  gut. Some look left and right, some look back over their heads at the clock behind them. Doesn’t matter; they all make me feel the same way.

At that moment, I stand accused of a particularly devastating combination of pedagogical and personal sins: I am boring; I have failed to make the subject matter interesting enough. My pride is buffeted: I am not a riveting performer, entertaining and educating in equal measure; I’m not like those great teachers I keep hearing about who keep their students spell-bound and rapt with attention, sometimes keeping their uncomplaining and adoring brood in class well beyond closing time. Clock watching students seem to inform me, rather unambiguously, that their time could be better utilized elsewhere, that whatever it is I’m selling, it’s not worth their hanging around for it.

Little of what I have written above is ‘rational’, of course. Students are human beings and tire, just like I do. In particular, attending a night-time class is always onerous after a tiring day spent elsewhere, perhaps reading and writing dense material, perhaps working a full-time job. Sometimes clock-watching can be instinctive; we are used to the idea of calibrating our progress through the day with frequent consultation of our time-keepers. Classes are held indoors, and with windows granting access to what might be a more salubrious outside, who wouldn’t want to check on how long it will be before the frolicking begins? (This is especially germane now, here on the East Coast of the US, as we recover from a brutal winter and enjoy a glorious spring that has sent temperatures soaring into the sixties.)  Lastly, it is not as if all my students are so engaged in clock-watching. One or two out of twenty or thirty might do it; is that so bad? You can’t really please all the folks all the time.

And then, of course, there is dirty little secret that many students are well aware of: their teachers also watch clocks. They too want to be done subjecting themselves to this experience, which no matter how inspiring and edifying at its best moments, always carries just a tinge of terror: that unshakeable feeling that your ignorance, instead of your wisdom, will soon be on display.


Learning From Freud: Addiction, Distraction, Schedules

In An Anatomy of an Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted and The Miracle Drug CocaineHoward Markel writes:

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.

As Sherwin Nuland noted in his review of Markel:

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.

And I went on to conclude:

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.

Then, The Eagerly Awaited Letter; Now, The Notification

Every weekday of my two years in boarding school bore witness to the implacable ritual of the mail from home: run to the teacher’s staff-room, ask for the day’s letters and postcards–sorted into piles corresponding to your ‘house‘–and then, surrounded by eager supplicants, call out the names of the lucky ones. At the end of it all, some schoolboys would walk away beaming, a letter from home eagerly to be torn open and read; yet others walked away crestfallen, left to look on longingly on those who had been lucky enough to have been the recipients of those postal missives. Perhaps our family had forgotten about us; perhaps we were ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Perhaps we did not matter; we were not important enough to be written to.

After I left boarding school, I continued to correspond with some friends by mail; I waited for their letters too, with some of that old eagerness. I would run down, time and again, to our building’s post-box, looking to see if the postman had brought goodies. This search was suffused with an irrational longing; I would check even the day after I had received a letter from my most frequent correspondent, somehow hoping he might have written two letters in a row. Sometimes I would check multiple times in a day when the the post-box remained empty; perhaps the postman had been late on his rounds, perhaps there would be two deliveries that day.

When I moved to the US, my mother wrote me letters regularly. The nightly check in the post-box, or, if my roommates had returned home before I did, on the table in the kitchen, quickly became another persistent ritual. I wanted to read her words, see her handwriting, establish contact with someone I had left behind, who I knew longed for me, and who I longed for in turn.

I never quite got over that craving for that touch, that contact, that reminder that someone had reached out.

The years rolled by. I discovered email. And the checking, the search for confirmation, grew and grew. Now, I check email–on all four of my accounts–constantly. There is a work account, a personal account, a blogging/social media/Twitter account, and lastly, an old work account, that for some inexplicable reason, I have not shut down. And there are Facebook notifications, Likes, comments, link shares, mentions, replies; there are Twitter mentions, retweets, favorites, replies. I check and check and check. On and on and on. It’s the first thing I do in the morning; it’s the last thing I do before I turn in to sleep; it’s what I do in the middle of the night if I cannot fall back to sleep after being disturbed–perhaps because of a bathroom break or my wailing toddler. (Like last night.)

I look at my inbox and see the count is at zero; my heart sinks. I see there are only spam or administrative emails; I am enraged. I post a link to a blog post and see no ‘likes’, a minuscule number of views; I am crestfallen.  I see no replies to my tweets, no mentions; I feel anonymous and ignored.

But when people do reply, and I reply, and they reply, and on it goes, I’m exhausted and seek to withdraw. Words spring to my lips but I feel too weary to transmit them through my keyboard back ‘out there.’ I crave attention and then shrink from it when it arrives. I want to ride this train, but I want to get off too.

I’m neurotic.