Tag Archives: internet

Varieties of reading: drawing in and pulling away


I’ve just finished reading Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Headwhich I’d happily say is one of the best books I’ve read in the last year.  I wonder when the subtitle changed from On becoming an individual in an age of distraction to How to flourish in an age of distraction? The latter, on the UK Penguin paperback edition, makes it sound like a self-help book. The former, which seems to be the American hardcover subtitle, is more accurate because it does greater justice to the philosophical content of the book. On the other hand, Crawford’s whole point is that the idea of individual, autonomous liberty is not necessarily liberating or ideal, whereas connection and engagement with the real world of people and things is. To flourish, you need to radically reconsider the notion of what it means to be individual and free in the first place.

My current reading list: not so much a list as a pile

My favourite part of the day. Coffee and something from this pile.

We kid ourselves if we think that we while we are humming along in neutral, our minds are in some freewheeling state where we think and act autonomously. For many of us, the world is full of things that are making claims on our  “attentional commons,” eroding our right to live in a world without ubiquitous advertising and clickbait. If you don’t believe it, maybe you haven’t heard marketing people talk about every available space, including the back of your bus ticket, as “real estate” where someone can peddle their wares at you, colonising every object you use and see with a corporate flag.

Still reading “Still writing”

What Crawford is getting at is difficult to imagine, unless you’ve had the opportunity to differentiate between different kinds of attention. I’m now riffing on the book, by introducing another, Dani Shapiro’s Still Writingwhich I would put near the top of the list of books which have most influenced me in the last year.  Although it’s not a self-help book, there is one page which made a huge difference to me. It’s where Shapiro distinguishes between two kinds of reading – the kind that draws you in, and the kind that pulls you away (incidentally, pulling away is more or less what the components of the word distraction mean).

I try (most of the time I fail, but still, I try) to begin my day reading. And by this I do not mean The New York Times online, or the Vanity Fair lying on the kitchen table or the e-mails that have accumulated overnight, and which I open at my own risk. The roulette of the in-box! An enticing invitation to a private online sale of gourmet Himalayan sea salt, a high school nemesis emerging from the ether—whatever it is, it’s the opposite of reading. It pulls you away, instead of directing you inward.

[…] When I start the morning with any one of the dozen books in rotation on my office floor, my day is made instantly better, brighter. I never regret having done it. Think about it: have you ever spent an hour reading a good book, and then had that sinking, queasy feeling of having wasted time?

 (Dani Shapiro, 2013. Still Writing, New York: Grove Press, pp. 34-35).

I also try, not always successfully, to do the same. That is, to walk downstairs, without touching a phone or a computer, and pick up a book, and read it. When I do that, I get the same feeling as when I first tried to give up smoking. A visceral twitch that could make you lurch towards the nearest cigarette shop to buy another packet.

But within minutes of picking up a book, just as Shapiro says, you get drawn in, and feel better for it. Her point is that good writing comes from good reading, and that any time you spend reading a well-written book is going to stimulate the writer that you want to be, and other forms of reading – that really need a different term to describe them, since they are so fundamentally different – have the effect of distracting you, pulling you in different directions, until you feel mentally exhausted and vacant.

So this post is by way of celebrating that today, at least, I didn’t do that, I finished The world beyond your head, and —as Shapiro promised—I feel all the better for it.

‘Digital natives’? I don’t buy it


I can’t usually watch more than two minutes of a televised debate without fast forwarding or switching off altogether, but I was completely hooked by all 100 minutes of the ‘Are We Making Monsters?’ debate at ENO with Will Self, Claire Fox, Norman Lebrecht and composer Nico Muhly.

The occasion was a build-up event for  Muhly’s opera Two Boys which premieres at ENO this Friday (24th June). The opera is based around a true story of a teenage stabbing in which the internet, social media and multiple fictional online personalities played a central role.

I found it fascinating precisely because there is so much we can’t know here, and the issues are enormous, deep and wide-ranging. To hear the social, moral & psychological  implications of Grindr discussed by such luminaries is deeply satisfying and funny. Time and again, I found myself switching sides as the speakers (particularly Claire Fox) disagreed with each other with compelling arguments.

There is one argument in all of it that I just don’t buy, however, and that is this conceptual division of individuals into what Will Self initially called the ‘pre-net’ and ‘post-net’ generation. An audience member finally pointed out that it’s more common to speak of ‘internet native’ and ‘internet immigrant’. I’m more accustomed to the terms ‘digital native’ and ‘digital immigrant’ to describe people who were  born with or without the presence of the internet.

I have never bought this idea as being particularly helpful or true. As a tutor, I spent a lot of my time struggling to teach ‘digital natives’ how to be one, not always with a great deal of success.  I, and some others of my (pre-internet) generation, are at times more tuned in to the possibilities and affordances of the online world than people who grew up with it.   No-one is compelled to use the internet all the time for all the things it can do, and the divisions, as far as I’m concerned, are not along age-lines, but between people who do and people who don’t do stuff with it. People who don’t make use of something like Zotero for academic work – to take one example – don’t do so not because of their age, but because they are lazy and/or they don’t need to do so in order to eat (lucky them). Or it’s simply that they can’t, because they don’t have the money, the broadband access, the hardware and the education. Try telling an impoverished child in an area where the council has closed the library that they’re part of the ‘net generation’.

I sometimes tend to the same kind of pessimism about the internet as Will Self, but in the end, that wouldn’t make any sense. The only reason that I know what he thinks about the subject is because I saw the debate on the web, using my iPhone not as some device to interact with others virtually, but as a small television. The only reason I knew about the debate is because I follow Dickon Edwards on Twitter, and he posted a link to the debate. The debate itself was occasioned by an art-form that I largely detest (opera). I got a flyer through the post, and promptly threw it away. Via the web, I got to hear a bit of Muhly’s music, see him in person, learn more about the opera, get engaged by the debate, and now I’ve bought tickets to see it.

The idea that there is an online world ‘out there’ that is separate, disengaged from the physical one is part of the problem of the debate. When Will Self heard the word ‘internet native’ he said something like ‘aha – so it’s a territory’. I don’t believe it is, even if people use the metaphor in casual speech. Because I don’t think it’s a territory,  I also don’t think it’s capable of having ‘natives’ and ‘immigrants’. Perhaps it’s this metaphor that causes people to become internet xenophobes in the first place.

Postscript: As chance would have it – and thanks to Dickon Edwards again for the tip – the Guardian reports on Facebook Fatigue. Perhaps we’re over it already.

See also: 30 minute podcast/interview with Craig Lucas (librettist of Two Boys) and Nico Muhly from the Independent, with Edward Seckerson. Wonderful stuff, and more great insights on the world of the online.

Will the real Eduard Khil’ (trololo man) please stand up? Yes!


Wonderful to see that the original  trololo man Eduard Khil’ is still very much alive and well, and enjoying his internet fame (a recent comment called him the ‘Jesus Christ of Youtube’). Here he is on a Russian TV programme watching clips from Youtube of other people imitating the Trololo song. And it’s another reason to love the Internet.

And for hardcore trololo fans, here he  is singing along with his fans on Skype.

The related videos make for perfect procrastination material. I’m just waiting for Trololo the ballet.