Column

Mythologies

3 April 2019

My phone promises that I keep track of time. So why do I keep losing track of time instead?

The iPhone provides me with a detailed breakdown of how I use it. The information is unflattering, and somehow always surprising. “Where did all that time go?”

I resent the alerts because it was Apple who created the addictive technology, and now it wants to discipline its users for their addictions. It abdicates its own responsibility for your time and attention span; it wants you to be mindful. It acts like a parent, prodding you with reminders, keeping an eye on you, though a corporation can do no such thing. However, it does not love you, it wants your two most finite resources: your attention and time. These reminders serve an elegant and counter-intuitive function: to curb the addiction just enough that one does not try to go cold turkey. Just to spend a mindful 2.5 hours on the screen, as opposed to an excessive four or five.

I have lost control of my time. My attention span isn’t what it used to be. I can’t get lost in a book like I used to — unless I really try and the book is particularly compelling. I spend a great deal of time on Twitter, even though the experience is mostly terrible. I know my commutes would be better spent reading a book or staring out the window. Nonetheless, I keep returning, gambling my time in hopes I see something interesting enough to make the scrolling worth my time. Like a slot machine, my phone rewards me just often enough to keep me coming back for more. I know how unfashionable it is to criticise technology. The problem is not these kids with their phones. It is a question of attention, and who is profiting from the way it’s directed.

Silicon Valley is aware that people don’t like this obsessive, unfocussed feeling. It has become a status symbol to show yourself to be in control of your life. To demonstrate productivity is to demonstrate discipline, signifying success under capitalism. Technological advances have allowed us to monitor ourselves as much as we want. Your phone counts your daily steps whether you like it or not, but you could choose to monitor your heart rate, your calorific intake, the books you read, the depth of your sleep. Self-knowledge is delegated to the work of the machines, and our level of satisfaction is measured in what machines tell us. Philosopher Tom Whyman documents this phenomenon in an article for The Outline, describing how the ultra-wealthy cultivate their identities according to what Foucault described as “technologies of the self,” turning surveillance capabilities of late capitalism in on oneself, sculpting the individual into the ideal capitalist subject. Each moment of the day is accounted for, revealing a life of painstaking effort described in nightmarish HR jargon. There is something puritanical about this kind of work ethic, in which the total sum of human life could be measured in productive output.

Needless to say, this kind of relentless self-policing — while intended to be aspirational — comes across as unappealing to most people. It draws an obsessive line between what is worthwhile (green juices, spreadsheets, bullet journaling, self-help books, personal finance) and what is wasteful (political organising, calorie dense food, fiction). I do not want to wake up at 4:30 am to drink a charcoal smoothie before embarking on some kind of extra difficult yoga that only rich people know about. Such a life does not allow for a Sunday morning lie-in with someone you love, or a plate of cheap dumplings washed down with a cold beer or reading books that do not explicitly support the development of the productive self. Surely, the most pleasurable parts of life are the ones which perhaps do not have an obvious point but are simply worthwhile in and of themselves.

Perhaps the problem is that we spend so much of our lives under late-capitalism performing labour. One can monetise their own car, their spare room, pictures of a meal out with friends. In all these cases, a CEO somewhere is profiting. If I spend too long scrolling apps on my phone, I am making money for tech-CEOs when I could direct my attention in ways that might be more enjoyable. If I want to take more control of my life, there are a range of products designed to support this goal, but they seem to promise a life of a different kind of labour, maximising my own economic output for what appears to be a miserable existence of relentless work and self-obsession.

What is life but attention? I do not know how to get mine back. There are apps on my phone that stop me from using other apps. This seems to be the best line of defence. I suspect the solution to these problems is not an individual one, it does not lie in fastidious self-control. Life is meaningful because there are other people in it. Let’s start there.


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