Can We Be In Sync? A Review of Pettman’s Infinite Distraction

Infinite Distraction is a polemical look at the state of the internet and social media. Dominic Petman, a Professor of Culture and Media at the New School in NYC, expanded it from a Facebook post he wrote into a book looking at the ways in which new media increasingly modulates daily experience, through the creation of specifically tailored feeds. which are meant to disperse people into emotional micro-experiences, where “we never feel the same way as other potential allies and affines at the same moment.” (pg 29)
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Reading this book reminded me of Bifo Berardi’s The Soul at Work, where Berardi discusses the progressive mentalization of work and the extreme emphasis on cognitive labor, which is characterized by the manipulation and combination of signs and information. Pettman would probably agree with Berardi on the two main ideas of his book: hypersynchronization (the standardization of experience) and hypermodulation (the compartmentalizing and interchangeability of experience). Berardi is more interested in the decline of worker movements and labor activism than Pettman is, and spends a good portion of his book on that topic. Berardi also focuses on the exploitation of cognitive labor, which is what Pettman also seems to describe, even if he doesn’t necessarily use that term. Hypermodulation, taken with Berardi’s of the deterritorialization of signs and capital, reveals a global structure that prevents solidarity and makes organization difficult.
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Media companies and their execs and engineers believe they are free of ideology and bias in their attempts to globalize a specific type of human experience at the expense of others; an experience that is quite profitable for the companies in question. Pettman does not seek to blame specific individuals and in some ways he is correct about that, as it is difficult to accuse the media of covering up “the truth.” “Rather, incessant and deliberately framed representations of events are themselves used to obscure and muffle those very same events.” (pg 11). The best example of this is the Facebook “Trending” feed, which placed news about the Flint water crisis next to the latest Kim Kardashian selfie. Content tries to go viral. It tries “to become an event,” (pg 70) where mutually exclusive ideas are granted compatibility and legitimacy.
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So, is Mark Zuckerberg’s face Facebook? Maybe so, since he is so vocal abut his work and online presence and his impact is just easier to discuss and observe. After all, no one talks about Tumblr’s creator David Karp like Zuckerberg, despite the strong negative feelings about “tumblr culture.” (Tumblr was bought by Yahoo, thus becoming absorbed into a large media conglomerate. Facebook shattered and restructured media in new ways and creates and controls a market far grander than Tumblr. I would argue Zuckerberg is more akin to Bill Gates).
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While Pettman is more interested in social groups, what would he say about the role of the individual? When the individual is treated as the ultimate social unit, they can and do great and powerful things as individuals. We can point to individuals and their actions in these instances as the effect of their decisions is so pervasive, as seen in India’s rejection of Facebook’s free internet scheme, which some have called digital colonialism. His response would probably be that, while true, they are still synchronized to a strong degree to support certain behaviors and ideas that are in line with neoliberal economics, which I would agree with. Perhaps the extreme power of these individuals is the illusion resulting from hypermodulation that Pettman discusses.

The weakness of Infinite Distraction lies in its brevity. It is a short little book that explains his two main ideas and what other people have to say about attention/distraction. I like his understanding of attention and distraction as two sides of the same coin and his analysis that contemporary media is about buying bits of that attention/distraction. It would be interesting to see him discuss how people want to buy into this distraction even as they resist and moralize it. Another analysis that would have been interesting is how the culture tak surrounding these phenomena is usually centered around those who are most vulnerable (the poor, students, marginal workers, etc). For example, hypermodulation affects employment in the form of the gig economy and and the precarity of independent labor that is not unionized and protected. The eradication of and fear of difference in the form of ultranationalism and anti immigration sentiment, which is related to the entitled opinion that everything should be consumable and synchronized to my ways (read: white, male, American or Euro-centric) of thought and being. An analysis of the analog base (which bodies are designing these systems) of this synchronicity would be beneficial. Ultimately, Pettman is optimistic and argues for a rethinking of distraction as an ally which can allow us to interrupt and break traditional modes of thinking and being.
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Author: Dan Lark

"What would it mean to have that thought?"

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