Information inundation and social deskilling

Painting by Sally Fama Cochrane via
Concentration is not thinking, though it is easy to elide them, particularly when we are mentally exhausted. And mental exhaustion is certainly not a matter of having done too much high-level thinking; our brain power can be depleted by mundane anxieties, nuisances, and other feats of petty focus. Concentration is attention sustained over time, a quantity; thought is clearly something more qualitative that is not reducible to time spent focusing.

In Shoshana Zuboff's In the Age of the Smart Machine, an ethnography of workers whose offices were computerized in the early 1980s, clerks whose claims-processing jobs were automated complained of being more exhausted by their computerized work though they were required to remember far less information and do much less thinking and decisionmaking. "The knowledge demands of their tasks had been diminished ... but attentional requirements and responsibility had increased.... The knowledge they had acquired was now less important than typing skills and the sheer stamina needed to meet daily production quotas." Knowledge and engagement declined as the demand for attention increased.

Zuboff associates this with clerical work becoming an "acting-on" job rather than an "acting-with" job — i.e. a deskilled job where you follow directions rather than a job where you plan your work in communication and collaboration with others with equal latitude in fulfilling their work functions. Rather than facilitate the "general intellect" that emerges from denser networked interconnection, information technology initially militated against it, so much that clerks craved the opportunity, Zuboff notes, to talk to complaining customers "simply because it afforded an opportunity to hear a real voice." (Of course, customer service has since been largely automated, with layers of nonhuman interaction interposed between humans to prevent precisely this sort of subversion.)

Social skills were purged from work in favor of efficiency, which is typically a matter of decreasing the necessity for human interaction in accomplishing specific tasks. The computer instituted an involuntary speed-up on workers by dematerializing their work, making it less tangible and thus harder to gauge its volume. And it taxed workers emotionally, as they had to learn to trust machines rather than other humans or themselves, and machines are implacable in marking time.

As it was with production, so it has become with consumption, as entertainment products have been digitized and dematerialized. Technology is often sold to us with this implicit agenda: it will allow us to consume more faster, turning experience into information that can be processed and rebroadcast for our own identity-constructing purposes. Consumerism presupposes that the purpose of life is to "experience" as many consumer goods as possible by buying them or at least by exercising our vaunted freedom of choice to select them. What matters is not the social or sensual experience to be derived from goods but the signifying power they have in networks to communicate our status — how much we know and can access. At the same time, the accelerated rate of exchange (of goods and information, or increasingly, informational goods, the only sort there is) increases the circulation of goods and allows for more money to change hands and more opportunities for profits to be realized.

The concern with productive efficiency is translated into a concern for convenience, but the goal is the same: higher throughput: more consuming work achieved in less time, with fewer barriers in the form of human interaction to impede the quantifiable consumption experience. The faster we can turn what we consume into a form of information, the more our consumption efforts are recouped as a form of labor for capital. Until the advent of social media, much of human interaction escaped being converted into information. Fortunately that problem has been more or less solved. Social media has at last made social interaction "more convenient."

I'm cannibalizing this old post about Zygmunt Bauman's Consuming Life
Social media supply a structure for social experience that seems to absolve it of its necessary awkwardness. But this leaves us less equipped to deal with the inevitable friction involved in forming groups or any other social interaction, making us more reliant on technological interfaces to mask tensions and obviate the need for negotiation. It bodes well for commercial interests and intensified consumption but not for, say, political organization, let alone intimacy. The friction and tension is the substance of the relation, ultimately, not its unfortunate by-product.

Zuboff's depiction of mental exhaustion through a diminished scope of thinking, of thinking reduced to stamina, reminded me of Cheri Lucas's essay about the difficulties of keeping up with one's self-imposed information-consumption responsibilities.

I have a Fear of Missing Out on the best links and stories of the day, hesitant of taking breaks from Twitter—of jumping off the moving train—because I feel it will be harder to jump back on, to catch up to everyone else, to saturate myself in all that’s relevant again, to know what now is.

I empathize with this completely. The inability to pay as much attention to as many things as I am suddenly aware of becomes a self-castigating emotional burden. This strikes me as not entirely different from the feeling Zuboff's clerks had of being helplessly attached to their computers — the demand for attention increasing, the leisure to think decreasing; knowledge becoming detached from raw concentration — only the clerks were acutely aware that the computers were "doing the thinking for you." They didn't blame themselves. When I get the sense I am scrambling to keep up with my Google Reader feed or all the links flowing through on Twitter, I get overwhelmed with a sense of exhaustion, but I forget that I am making myself march at the machine's pace. As Lucas puts it, "It’s now a challenge to let information simply flow—to let tweets swim by without me seeing or interacting with them." We are encouraged to view overwhelming amounts of information as "streams" rather than "floods", to regard data as something we can immerse in without being penetrated by it. But that's not quite right. We are encouraged to make ourselves into the flood, to make more rain. It's not our nature to be a stick in the mud of an information flow. Information doesn't pass by us without leaving a residue; the more we let slip past the more we feel ignorant, and worse, we feel not included, since so much of this information comes from "social" sources with social implications.

I am going to get into "digital-dualism" trouble here, but no sort of social scene would ever inundate me with information in this way, but RSS feeds and Twitter aggregate the impulse to share information in such a way that it is desocialized, and detached from human scale. It shifts my mental mode from thinking to concentration; from comprehension to stamina. I have to process all the information into a product for social consumption rather than actually let this information facilitate sociality as something not to be consumed but experienced.

In other words, online sociality may be a form of social deskilling designed to get us to perform more quasi-social behavior (sharing, etc.) while enjoying it less. It does what ought to be impossible: turning the essence of "acting-with" — social communication — into a dispiriting form of "acting-on."