Thoughts on Evgeny Morozov’s New Yorker article, “Only Disconnect”

I just finished reading Evgeny Morozov’s book review in the October 28th, 2013 issue of the The New Yorker, “Only Disconnect” (You need to be a subscriber to read from the link. (No matter your thoughts on Condé Nast, the magazine is worth it.)) and enjoyed it. The books he mentions are The Circle by Dave Eggers, The Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now by Douglas Rushkoff, The Distraction Addiction by Alex Pang, and Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information by Malcolm McCullough. But, as to be expected, the article is less a comprehensive, point-for-point critique, more a chance for Morozov to springboard into his deductive hypotheses and thought gems. For all the judgement I have come across surrounding the man and his work, I have always found Morozov to press deeper in his musings, to glean more novel conclusions than other tech-cautious intellectuals. I also appreciate the frequency at which he cites the work of philosophers and media theorists of yesteryear to inform his analyses.

Through this piece, Morozov introduced me to several new phrases, namely “information environmentalism,” (which he did not coin) “slow spots,” and “contemplative computing,” (which he seems to have coined) all of which I look forward to using in the future. “Information environmentalism” describes the ideal to set aside spaces for humans, particularly city dwellers, that minimize the potential of sensory bombardment through digital channels. So-called “slow spots” would include, but are not limited to, spaces that lack and/or block wifi. They could be as simple as park benches with wireless signal signal jammers, wifi-free rooms within a library. To go even farther, with the advent of mobile advertising broadcasted via phones, Glasses, and interactive billboards, the ideal fantasy of a slow spot would call for a sanctuary free from both Internet connectivity and corporate influence. “Contemplative computing” encapsulates the mentality of being aware of the time-sinks and distractions and actively seeking to combat and manage, rather than relent to them.

I did take issue with “Only Disconnect” in at least a couple places. In a particular instance, Morozov writes, “All three [authors] manage to be skeptical without pandering to technophobia or neuroscience — the two dominant frameworks for discussing how digital technologies affect attention and distraction.” I read this as a line of vague dismissal and would have liked to see further elaboration. For one, the choosing of the categories seemed fairly arbitrary. Psychology and cognitive science are additional angles from which people have investigated the impact of technology on attention. Does he lop those in with neuroscience? Moreover, I do not understand the scorn implied for neuroscience by putting it at the level of “technophobia.” Is neuroscience not a legitimate way of elucidating the impact of digital technologies on human consciousness for Morozov? If so, I wonder why. If it is because of the flimsy and over-stepping conclusions drawn by some studies, well, I would ask Morozov not to confuse “neurobollocks” with all of neuroscience.

Another complaint — Morozov does not ever clearly delineate his usage  of “boredom” and “disconnection” in the piece, two words which stand separate in my mind. The subtitle of his article is “Two Cheers for Boredom,” and he glowingly cites German culture theorist Siegried Kracauer’s notion of “radical boredom,” a state initiated by “[drawing] the curtains and getting to know your sofa,” where a person is given the opportunity “to peek at a different temporal universe, to develop alternative explanations of [] predicaments, and even to dare to dream of different futures.” Morozov continues rallying around the banner of radical boredom later, writing of a need to not capitulate for a “tepid, mediocre version[].” And then, he pulls away. In Morozov’s final paragraph, he settles on a more balanced vision, writing about the preferred “possibility of controlled disconnection,” a more productive boredom in which “task lists and deadlines are manageable.” The glacial unstimulation of antediluvian train travel, which once compelled Gustave Flaubert to lament, (Morozov himself quotes. I, for sure, am not well-read enough yet to have Flaubert quotes at the ready) “‘I get so bored on the train that I am about to howl with tedium after five minutes on it'”? It is a “problem” eventually solved by “railway bookstores and libraries.” Does a more measured “disconnection” with books with fall under the umbrella of “radical boredom”? The words, the usage of language itself, suggests that it does not. And while he uses them interchangeably at times, Morozov himself ultimately seems to indicate a divergent regard for the phrases.

Morozov winds down the piece with a view that we should “[cultivate] our own gardens of connection and disconnection,”  retreating from a total war on Internet indulgence. I was surprised by this rare offering of an olive branch (or twig) to the tech world on his part. He once more invokes the Siegfried Kracauer and writes,

“As much as [Kracauer] favored radical boredom, he disdained neither modern technologies nor the masses, with their penchant for dance, travel, and slapstick films. On the contrary, all these diversions, he thought, could help sabotage modernity’s efforts to shove people ‘into an everyday life that turns them into henchmen of the technological excess.’…The trick is to honor and celebrate both [radical boredom and radical distraction]–and not to settle for their tepid mediocre visions.”

It is just that radical distraction has already been plenty honored by Silicon Valley and the cultural values of  Corporate America. Thus, as a start to balancing the scale, he proceeds to advocate for a “subsidy and a national holiday of sorts” to commemorate and set aside time for radical boredom. To this notion of a boredom stimulus package, a National Do Whatever The Fuck You Want That Isn’t Against The Law Week, I offer my wholesome, unadulterated support.

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I did not check my email once while writing this. I feel lightly proud, knowing that I will check my email right after.

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Fighting for boredom. Aggressive and taxing campaigning for right to boredom. How sweet of a notion is that?

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