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CIB: the distraction economy, empty living rooms & a toe-dip into poetry and polemic

I’ve shortened ‘Currently Influenced By…’ to CIB in the titles of these posts, because there are ‘rules’ about optimum length of blog posts titles and only a small percentage of people will read past the first couple of words, etc etc. It’s one of the symptoms of the Age of Attention, and what Aldous Huxley called our ‘almost infinite appetite for distractions.’

Pay attention now

Being distracted by technology used to be something we’d joke about – how poems never quite got written because we spent too long watching cute kitten videos. I still sometimes have to actually say under my breath the things I pick up my phone to do – check weather, check train times to London – otherwise I get sucked into reading and responding to emails, or a ‘quick’ look at the news, or a review of the photos I took yesterday to share with Nick – ‘oh look at this one!’

But reading James Williams‘s piece in the RSA Journal was a sharp reminder of where we’re going with technology, and it’s worse than you think. Williams is design ethicist and a former Google strategist, as well as co-founder of Time Well Spent, a campaigning organisation aiming to ‘realign technology with humanity’s best interests’:

In the sort term, the externalities of the digital attention economical distract us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, they can distract us from living the lives we want to live, […] a primary effect of digital technologies is to undermine the operation and even the development of the human will.

Williams talks persuasively about this – how the ‘petty media environment defined by impulsiveness and zero-sum competition for our attention’ has created fertile ground for the success of Donald Trump, for example, and how technology has ‘crowded out opportunities for reflection and replaced leisure with entertainment.’

(As I read this I thought of a recent ‘Homes for Sale’ supplement in the local paper, and its photos of interiors designed to ease the sale. When I saw a photo of what appeared to be a vast living room containing nothing but a black TV on the wall and a sofa, I felt sad – even though there may be many interpretations of such a scenario – perhaps the person or people living here spend all their time at work or going for long walks or political protest marches or caring for their old mum. Maybe they never lived there. Or maybe they’re in the process of moving out. But the picture still made me feel sad.)

Steer for the deep waters only

A recent poetry mail shot contained a flyer for a new publication called The Analog Sea Review (an offline journal) – you may have seen it. Their manifesto:

Analog Sea is a small community of writers and artists wishing to maintain contemplative life in the digital age. […] We aim to spark conversations between those who find artistic expression, philosophical enquiry, and reverence for nature critical counterweights to the racket and fragmentation of modern life.

They don’t have a website nor an email address.

Technology. Attention. Distraction. What’s it doing to us?

These are big issues for me, having spent many years absorbed in and fascinated by the internet and online behaviour. Online enriched my life, especially in the early days (late twentieth/early twenty-first century) and I believed the good would outbalance the bad, but it’s not looking that way now.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know that I gave up using Facebook in January 2017, initially for a month, as I was starting to feel an overwhelming sense of anxiety every time I opened it up. I haven’t gone back, and don’t regret the decision. Today on Cheryl Capaldo Traynor’s blog I read about her own trials with Facebook, when people who she believes to be her friends spread inflammatory material. She documents her difficulty in deciding how to deal with this. But leaving Facebook, with everything she enjoys about it, isn’t an option –  ‘I’ve done enough cutting off my nose to spite my face in my lifetime.’

I’ve recently written a piece for Poetry News about social media and the ‘health’ of poetry, canvassing the opinions of a range of poets, which was in itself fascinating. It hasn’t been signed off yet, so I don’t know if or when it will appear, but I can tell you it was hard to cover everything I wanted to in 800 words, so I sense there will be more about it, not least of all on this blog.

I don’t really ‘do’ political poetry. Or do I?

I suppose it’s all got me thinking more about how the politics of technology and online behaviour intersect, and  I can feel it oozing out in the form of poetry. Or at the point of oozing. I’ve been reading Peter Raynard’s new collection Precarious, and have been a bit overcome by its hugeness, it’s a tsunami of a collection where image piles upon image upon image as if all the injustices experienced over many years have been compressed and expressed with an intensity that’s relentless. (I realise that’s not a complete review, and not all the poems in the book fit that description, but more on this in another post.)

With this in mind I’ve recently found my way to some interesting US poetry publishers championing social and political causes, via Twitter. For example, the Rise Up Review and Glass Poetry Press… more on THIS in another post as well.

Which reminds me. My list of poetry magazine submissions windows is due an update, and I may start to add some US journals to the list. I feel my attention being split. Must focus.



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  1. Oh my! I opened up my gmail to find something I needed for work , and saw your Blog. Always an interesting read, BUT . . . I couldn’t help thinking even as I (continued to) read it, I”M NOT SUPPOSED TO BE LOOKING AT THIS NOW . . . yes, big capital letters for the irony of being (nicely) distracted by your post on the distractions created by a fast diet of fast-changing online content in this digital age., But distracted I was, by that enticing, unread, in-bold email at the top of the Inbox. . .

    Now – the much harder bit – how do we wean ourselves off all this ??

  2. elly elly

    Thanks for the two new-to-me U.S. Links 🙂

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Thanks Elly, glad they’re useful!

  3. Thought-provoking post, Robin. I do fear that by spending so much time on the internet, we’re giving up precious time on “living the lives we want to live.” It’s easy to get pulled down the rabbit hole of endless google searches and distraction. I wonder if this is especially appealing to those of us who enjoy wordsmithery and make our living through research, ideas, and writing words? Thanks for including my blog post on the pitfalls of social media. I’m still struggling with what to do. I think I may need to follow your lead at some point, if I am to achieve peace in the future. The political scene is so ugly here in the US at this time. But, as noted, I’m not ready to leave FB just yet.
    I am going to check out the new-to-me poetry publishers and other links! Thanks for including me in a great post!

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Hi Cheryl and thanks for commenting. It’s tough to know how best to tackle it. I think we can only take small steps and those that feel right for us. And focus on helping younger generations develop better habits (than us I mean!) In a hundred years’ time I expect folks will have it sorted 🙂

      • Yes, you are right about the younger generation. I hope they learn from our mistakes! I think they will and have.

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Robin Houghton 2021