The Distraction Attraction

A lesson in Ethan Tussey’s The Procrastination Economy: The Big Business of Downtime is that a large, voracious and profitable cultural apparatus is absorbing and monetizing every second of your attention, writes Scott McLemee.

April 27, 2018
Cover of "The Procrastination Economy: The Big Business of Downtime" by Ethan Tussey

It’s too soon to say if grayscaling will change my life, as is its implicit promise. Probably not, but it’s worth a try.

In case you are even farther behind on such things than I am, “gray scale” refers to a setting on mobile devices that removes all color, leaving everything on screen intact but visible only in shades of gray. Even the normally white field I’m typing in now is slightly muted. I have the sense of finding myself in an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Why do this? To gain a slight advantage over the cunning of our devices and apps. For they are designed to draw and hold the eye and pull the attention always into the digital flux, with color as part of the seduction. A bright-red circle pops up on the Facebook icon when there’s something new to see, for example -- as there almost always is. Mark Zuckerberg is Pavlov and has conditioned the brain to drool even when it knows better.

Gray scale leaves the device fully functional. The utter drabness will either boost a user’s concentration or prove distracting in its own right. The effect is easy enough to reverse, and it’s worth experimenting with as an option for those times when your brain needs every bit of momentum it can build up.

But it’s likely that someone is working even now to break through gray scale’s protective barrier and siphon off a little of the time and mental energy of people trying to remain diligent. A clear lesson of Ethan Tussey’s The Procrastination Economy: The Big Business of Downtime (NYU Press) is that a large, voracious and profitable cultural apparatus is working tirelessly to absorb and monetize every second of your attention it possibly can, and to accompany you anywhere and everywhere you might find yourself.

Mobile devices and social media apps are only the most overt elements. In his overview of the system, Tussey, an assistant professor of communication at Georgia State University, focuses on the network of content providers, subscription services, consumer-behavior monitors and data-mining algorithms that operate, so to speak, in the hidden depths of our screens. This grid generates continuous and targeted flows of entertainment, information, advertisement and ideological affirmation; it anticipates our wants while trying to shape our habits and routines as well.

The book’s methodological framework emphasizes that much of the material available on mobile digital devices is in fact produced and distributed with an eye to where and when it will be consumed -- at the workplace or the waiting room, on the commute to work, or in the living room. And the content is often tied to other (typically more prestigious) forms of media. Often they help sustain modes of fandom that amount to advertising campaigns in a different guise. The songwriter finding an audience on YouTube or the esoteric podcast that establishes a tiny but rabidly devoted following can still operate in the environment Tussey describes. But the trend is toward integrating digital content with established media brands.

In an altogether too familiar gesture, The Procrastination Economy insists that consumption itself is a form of agency: “Fans use media in the workplace to assert their conditions within the work ecosystem,” etc. Be that as it may, the book’s discussion of “second-screen” television -- in which viewers watch a broadcast program while also keeping an eye on synchronized content available on their laptops or tablets -- seems more telling. One form of agency that viewers certainly do exercise, when possible, is skipping commercials. Second-screen content serves, in part, to distract viewers who might click around to see what else is on; at the same time, it can give ad agencies a second shot at their attention, perhaps by offering something more specific to the individual’s social-media profile. In the end, Tussey seems to be describing a relentless process by which every second of waking life falls under market forces, every action or turn of the head rendered somehow monetizable.

It seems odd that a book called The Procrastination Economy -- which, furthermore, uses that expression at least two or three times on almost every page -- should have nothing whatsoever to do with procrastination. This reader, at least, was disappointed, for it is the vice to which I have given the best years of my life. If there’s one thing it might be personally beneficial to monetize, that’s it.

Alas, no. In fact Tussey writes about almost nothing that can be called procrastination, even in the chapter on digital “snacking” during the workday. “Rather than causing work distraction,” he writes, “mobile audio devices actually give workers tools to manage existing distractions through customizable offerings.” A noisy cubicle farm is more bearable if you can listen to Spotify on headphones, say. Management at a call center set up a firewall that “allowed employees to browse the internet for non-work-related sites for a set amount of time throughout the day,” to prevent burnout, with an option to get more browsing time if they completed a high volume of calls.

This sounds like Taylorism for the 21st century, not procrastination. Even less fitting examples make up the chapters on how people use portable devices while commuting or stuck in a waiting room. Perhaps the title felt too catchy not to use, but it never applies to anything the book has to say.


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