Sunday, August 16, 2009

Wanting to want; more on distraction

Like Nick Carr and many others, David Ulin has discovered lately that he has a hard time finding the focus necessary for reading (this bodes ill for Ulin, who is the LA Times book editor). Instead, he yields to "an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know" and "the sense that there is something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it's mostly just a series of disconnected riffs and fragments that add up to the anxiety of the age."

I know what he's talking about, and am yielding to those very things at this moment. It must be said, however, that I did find the focus necessary to read his article - and lots of other stuff on the web - and am also now in the midst of a fairly focused internal dialogue about how to piece these words together.

Isn't the problem more that I went hunting for that article - or just anything to interest me - in the first place? There's a guilt associated with browsing the net for something to catch one's fancy that does not apply - unfairly, perhaps - when entering the world of a novel and allowing ourselves to be distracted inward.  Although  Coleridge likened the  reading of novels to idly to spitting from a bridge or swinging on a gate (digression: see his contempt for the unwashed readers of novels and "devotees of circulation libraries" below. He sounds like Mark Helprin!) -  immersing oneself in a novel is today largely considered a virtuous activity.

Sam Anderson's article in New York Magazine made the point that we, like Skinner's lever-pressing rats, are less attracted to rewards dispensed consistently and predictably than rewards that come to us randomly, according to what is known as the variable ratio schedule, or, as I like to call it, surfing on the internet.

The suggestion, of course,  is that seeking, wanting, is an object of desire in itself. Emily Yoffe puts a more scientific spin on this in an article in Slate, and argues that  internet surfers, driven forward by that unrelenting slavedriver and neurotransmitter dopamine, are more easily stimulated than satisified.  I can buy that, it explains many things. Not just why Ulin and I are surfing instead of reading, but also the shopper's most terrifying experience; discovering that far worse than not finding what you want, is finding nothing to want!

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