Tuesday, October 25, 2005

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 Firefox.

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 Afrofuturism, 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.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at October 25, 2005 10:45 PM to Methods

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.

Posted by: jeff at October 26, 2005 9:40 AM

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).

Posted by: Derek at October 26, 2005 3:49 PM

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.

Posted by: jeff at October 26, 2005 5:03 PM

I pulled up a few small pieces frome nettime here and here. Curious tensions; worth looking at once I've read Dery.

Posted by: Derek at October 26, 2005 6:44 PM