Narrow v. Broad

I could have missed Paul Ford’s guest entry at

43 Folders
, long as it is, because, well, I’m hard pressed to engage very
closely with long-ish entries that aggregate into my Bloglines account these
days, no matter how brilliant and insightful those long-ish entries might be. 
I’ve been finding myself broad-distracted lately, but just this once, I cast
caution to the wind and, instead of picking up Lanham for chapter seven, I
returned to Ford’s guest entry, wondering why did I flag it the other
day–kept as new

For one thing, it’s smart. Ford, a technophile and writer, builds two models
for distraction: narrow and broad.  Broad distractions commandeer attention
structures, overwhelming them. Narrow distractions, on the other hand, afford
wide sampling and imagination.  They excite, spark, energize.  For
Ford, who defines his ambitions simply as "I want to be a good writer, and I
want to have a full command of web technologies," narrow distraction helps him
mind-skip at a relatively general level.  He can bounce from one thing to
another to another, and this method is crucial to his weekly review for
Haper’s Magazine
.  But it’s not always so easy to keep the distraction
models from blurring. The struggle he writes about is familiar enough,
comparable, perhaps, to quandaries of specializing and generalizing in an
academic program:

I struggle, though, because my PC can play a DVD of Red Dawn while
I check my email and work on an essay. This sort of computing power is fine
for strong-willed people, but for the weak-willed like myself it’s a
hopeless situation. My work requires me to patiently work through things and
come up with fresh ideas. And I can honestly say that since broadband
Internet came to my home a year and a half ago my stock of new, fresh, fun
ideas has grown very thin. It’s just too much. My mind can’t wander,
because, with anything that interests me, I can look it up on Wikipedia to
gain some context. Before I know it I’ve got thirty tabs open at once in

I have just ten tabs open in Firefox at this very moment, but I’m sure I went
as high as fifteen earlier today.  Maybe twenty.  I’m not interested
in turning this entry into an entry about the demands of grad school (I’ll
vouch…it’s hard). But what’s hard about it, at least through the coursework
phase, is keeping the narrow from ballooning into the broad.  How can I
sustain just enough narrow distraction–a stream of percolating ideas and
possibilities–without those habits and practices broadening, jamming up,
freezing?  Fortunately the program I’m in makes room for figuring
such things out.  I’d say that a big part of coursework is learning to
differentiate narrow from broad distraction and then channeling the narrow into
productive, inventive thinking and work habits. 

And because two of the tabs I have open in Firefox show descriptions for the
courses I’m taking in the spring (my last semester of coursework), I should just
share the links here and eliminate two tabs.  One class is called
and the other is
Mapping the Future: Theory and Practice of "Writing" the Discipline

Both will be good classes; I’m looking forward to them.  The third and
final course of my program of study will be an elective.  Exactly what that
course will be remains unresolved, but I have a few encouraging prospects. I’ll
tell it here once it’s decided.


  1. Back in the day, I was on the Afrofuturism listserv. It never really went the way I had hoped (less talk about technology in terms of Afrofuturism, more talk about geopolitics/postcolonial issues, blah blah). Check out Mark Dery’s collection Flame Wars where he introduces the concept, though Spooky later disputes that Dery did (Spooky seems to hate Dery for some reason).
    I notice the book or essay is not on the list you all have.

  2. Thanks for the lead on Dery. I’ll definitely take a look at it. Is Spooky’s contempt for Dery evident in Rhythm Science or does that come up someplace else? (I’m just about to look at RS for the methodologies course I’m in, and we’re picking it up again next semester re Afrofuturism).

  3. I don’t remember seeing the argument in RS. I remember an exchange on the Nettime-L list which got a little ugly between the two.

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