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.

And:

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.

Or:

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.

Social Networks and Loneliness

As a graduate student in the late 1980s, I discovered, in quick succession, email, computerized conferencing, and Usenet newsgroups.  My usage of the last two especially–and later, the Internet Relay Chat–would often prompt me to say, facetiously, that I would have finished my graduate studies quicker had I stayed off the ‘Net more. That lame attempt at humor masked what was a considerably more depressing reality: staying online in the ‘social spaces’ the early ‘Net provided was often the only way to deal with the loneliness that is an inevitable part of the graduate student’s life. The emailing quite quickly generated frantic, incessant checking for the latest dispatches from my far-flung partners in correspondence; the conferencing–on the pioneering EIES–led to a full immersion in the world of conference discussions, messaging, live chatting; Usenet newsgroup interactions developed into engagement with, and entanglement in, long-running, fantastically convoluted disputes of many different shadings; IRC sessions generated a cluster of online ‘friends’ who could be relied upon to engage in long conversations at any time of the day or night.

All of this meant you could be distracted from classes and reading assignments. But that wasn’t all of it obviously; an often denuded offline social life was given heft by the online variant. There is something curiously ironic about the need for ‘filling up’ that is implicit in that statement: my daily life felt hectic at the best of times. Classes, assignments, campus employment, all seemed to occupy my time quite adequately; I fell all too easily into that classic all-American habit of talking loudly about how busy I was.

And yet, tucked away in the hustle and bustle were little singularities of emptiness, moments when the crowded campus would appear deserted, when every human being visible seemed surrounded by an invisible protective sheen that repelled all approaches. Into these gaps, thoughts of lands and peoples left behind all too easily intruded; into those interstices flooded in an awareness of a very peculiar distance–not easily characterized–from all that seemed so physically proximal. (That mention of ‘lands and peoples’ notes, of course, what was significantly different about my experience; I was voluntarily displaced, an international student.) These turned what could, and should, have been solitude, into just plain loneliness.

Those early days of refuge-seeking in the electronic and virtual spaces made available by the social networking tools of the time left their mark on me. They turned an already easily-distracted person into an often decohered mess of  competing impulses and emotions: a low-grade anxiety and impatience being among the most prominent of these. (I have often waxed plaintive on these pages about the distraction I suffer from; no cure seems forthcoming.)

As is perhaps evident, I don’t remember those days with any great fondness: to this day, bizarrely enough for a professor, I am made uneasy, not ecstatic, by the sight of students working late in libraries or laboratories, peering at computer terminals (as opposed to books, I suppose). And every Facebook or Twitter status that is an all-too poorly disguised plea for companionship generates an acute sympathetic response.

The times, I am told, are a-changin. But some things remain just the same.

Constraints, Creativity, and Programming

Last year, in a post on Goethe and Nietzsche, which invoked the Freedom program (to cure Internet distraction), and which noted the role constraints played in artistic creation, I had referred obliquely to a chapter in my book Decoding Liberation, in which ‘Scott Dexter and I tried to develop a theory of aesthetics for software, a crucial role in which is played by the presence of technical constraints on programmers’ work.’

Today, I’d like to provide a brief excerpt from Chapter 3, ‘Free Software and the Aesthetics of Code’, pp. 90-91:

Understanding how a particularly ingenious piece of code confronts and subsequently masters constraints is crucial to understanding creativity and beauty in programming. Programmers have a deep sense of how their work is made more creative by the presence of the physical constraints of computing devices. Programmers who worked in the early era of computing struggled, in particular, to write code that would work in the tiny memory banks of the time — the onboard mission computer for the Apollo 11 project had a memory of 72 kilobytes, less than that found in today’s least-sophisticated cell phone. This struggle was reflected in the nature of the appreciation programmers accorded each other’s work. Steven Levy’s ethnography of the early programming culture, Hackers, describes the obsession with  “bumming” instructions from code:

A certain esthetic of programming style had emerged. Because of the limited  memory space of the TX-0 (a handicap that extended to all computers of that era), hackers came to deeply appreciate innovative techniques which allowed programs to do complicated tasks with very few instructions. . . . [S]ometimes when you didn’t need speed or space much, and you weren’t thinking about art and beauty, you’d hack together an ugly program, attacking the problem with “brute force” methods. . . . [O]ne could recognize elegant shortcuts to shave off an instruction or two, or, better yet, rethink the whole problem and devise a new algorithm which would save  a whole block of instructions. . . . [B]y approaching the problem from an off-beat angle that no one had thought of before but that in retrospect, made total sense. There was definitely an artistic impulse residing in those who could use this genius from Mars technique (Levy 1994).

These programmers experienced the relaxation of the constraint of system memory, brought on by advances in manufacturing techniques, as a loss of aesthetic pleasure. The relative abundance of storage and processing power has resulted in a new aesthetic category. One of the most damning aesthetic characterizations of software is “bloated,” that is, using many more instructions, and, hence, storage space, than necessary; laments about modern software often take the shape of complaints about its excessive memory consumption (Wirth 1995; Salkever 2003). Huge executables are disparaged as “bloatware,” not least because of the diminished ingenuity they reflect (Levy 1994). Judgments of elegant code reflect this concern with conciseness: “I worked with some great Forth hackers at the time, and it was truly amazing what could be accomplished with what today would be a laughingly tiny memory footprint” (Warsaw 1999).

The peculiar marriage of constraints, functionality, and aesthetic sensibility in source code highlights a parallel between programming and architecture. An awareness of gravity’s constraints is crucial in our aesthetic assessment of a building, as we assess its ability to master the weight of materials, to make different materials cohere. While striving to make the work visually pleasing, the architect is subject to the constraints of the requirements of the structure’s inhabitants, much as the programmer is subject to the constraints of design specifications, user requirements, and computing power.

Artists in other genres struggle similarly: creative artistic action is often a matter of finding local maxima of aesthetic value, subject to certain constraints (Gaut and Livingston 2003). These constraints may be imposed on the artist, as in censorship laws; they may be voluntarily assumed, as when a composer decides to write a piece in sonata form; or they may be invented by the artists themselves, as in Picasso and Braque’s invention of Cubism. Whatever the origin of the constraints, “creative action is governed by them,” and “artistically relevant goals,” such as the facilitation of   communication between artists and the public, are advanced by them (Elster 2000, 212). The connection between creativity and coping with constraints is explicit in programming: “It is possible to be creative in programming, and that deals with far more ill-defined questions, such as minimizing the amount of intermediate data required, or the amount of program storage, or the amount of execution time, and so on” (Mills 1983)….Thus, the act of programming, in its most creative moments, endeavors to meet constraints imposed by nature through the physicality of computation, by the users of the program and their desires for functionality and usability, and by the programming community through the development of shared standards.

The Distraction of Distraction

I’ve written on distraction on this blog before (several times: detailing my ‘Net distraction; comparing the distraction attendant when trying to write with a pen as opposed to a word processor or blog editor; describing the effect of changing locales of work on distraction and of persistent online activity on the ‘offline’ world; noting how constraint might be essential to creativity.) This would indicate distraction is often on my mind, that I’m distracted enough by distraction to write about it–again and again. I’d like to think writing on distraction might be curative, that describing my strategies for dealing with it, appraising and evaluating them, might enable me to, as it were, ‘see through them’ to understand what goes wrong. Perhaps writing on distraction will also enable some reckoning with the internal monologues that lead to the breakdown of my ever-weakening resolve to not be distracted; perhaps coming to grips with its phenomenology–the release of tension experienced by responding to a distracting stimulus, the breakdown of my inner resolve to not look away, to not procrastinate–all might help. (It is impossible to write about distraction without writing about anxiety so that little demon will presumably make an appearance.)

At the outset, I should say I find my distraction incapacitating to the extent that–without exaggeration–I can say I am terrified and made unhappy by it. I am prone to thinking I am the most distracted person in the world. (I pen these words in the hope someone will make the effort to try to convince me I’m not so, for  misery needs company.) 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.

The resultant composite sensation resembles nothing as much as it does a kind of emptiness, a vacuity. Nothing has been taken in, nothing emitted. I feel merely depleted. This depletion calls out for replenishment, and thus, strategies for ‘holding down’ the restless wanderer as well. Nothing has worked yet, and by that I mean no strategy–internet fasts for instance–has shown itself to be sustainable. Perhaps the most successful behavioral modification is architectural as in physical distancing, like that present in my trips to the gym, where for a brief, intense set of moments, I can immerse myself and concentrate on physical effort. In those moments, there is genuine relief, not the empty kind experienced when switching tabs. Then, all too soon, the workout ends, I towel off and head home, already, bizarrely, anticipating the moment when I will sit back down at the scene of my perdition.

Note: In subsequent posts I hope to describe my experiences with the strategies I have tried for dealing with distraction.

Goethe and Nietzsche on the Freedom Program

A couple of days ago, while whiling away my time on Twitter, distracted from writing, and possibly other, more “productive” activities, I noticed Corey Robin tweet: “What would Nietzsche say about the fact that I need the Freedom program to write about Nietzsche?” My glib reply: “I think he’d love the irony of it! You haven’t ‘overcome’ yourself (or your distraction) yet.” To which Corey then wrote, “Or maybe he’d see it as the life-giving form I’ve imposed on myself in order to create. Crap, yes, but create nonetheless” and then went on to quote Nietzsche himself (from Beyond Good and Evil, Section 188; the passage is worth reading in its entirety):

But the curious fact is that all there is or has been on earth of freedom, subtlety, boldness, dance, and masterly sureness, whether in touch itself or in government, or in rhetoric and persuasion, in the arts just as in ethics, has developed only owing to the ‘tyranny of such capricious laws’.

A particularly appropriate quote under the circumstances.

On an academic note, I’ve been fascinated by the relationship between constraint and creativity for a long time. In Chapter 3 of Decoding Liberation, Scott Dexter and I tried to develop a theory of aesthetics for software, a crucial role in which is played by the presence of technical constraints on programmers’ work. More personally, as someone who is perennially distracted, who finds writing almost fiendishly difficult for that reason, and has often attempted to impose ‘Internet-fasts’ on himself in order to ‘produce,’ I remain intrigued and challenged by the need to restrain oneself in order to be truly free when it comes to self-expression (I’m indulging in the conceit here that writing is an activity that enables that.)

My struggles with working in the presence of the distraction–a ‘freedom’ that detracts from the ‘freedom’ of writing–are constant; sometimes those distractions are other daily, mundane responsibilities, sometimes willful procastination, and these are experienced by almost any one that sets out to ‘create’ in any shape or form whatsoever. And in those moments of struggle to get to work, where a particular freedom awaits us, we always struggle with the call of the alternative ‘freedom’.   And the peculiarity of it all, when we do manage to get to ‘creating,’ is a sense that somehow, restraint is an inseparable part of being free.

Of course, poets have said it better than I could.  So, without further ado, we have Goethe on the subject:

Nature and Art (Natur und Kunst)

Nature and art–they seem to split and flee
And find each other before one thinks about it. 
My stubbornness too has been completely routed
So right now both seem to appeal to me.
 
What’s missing is only an honest preparation!
The fact is that if we first devote hard hours–
Of spirit, of work–to art, accepting its powers, 
The heart once more feels nature’s illumination
 
That’s how it goes with every transformation:
All struggles to reach the perfection of airy summits
Prove useless to spirits feeling only liberty.
 
Whoever wants what’s best seeks combination:
A master first reveals himself in limits,
And law alone can truly set us free.