Alan Jacobs’s 79 Theses on Technology

As Chad Wellmon explains, the 79 Theses on Technology submitted by Alan Jacobs for disputation are somewhat “tongue-in-cheek,” but they are also most certainly “provocative.” I won’t quote them all here (because you should simply follow the link to the original post), but there are a few that I found to be particularly amusing or stimulating.

1.) Everything begins with attention.

5.) To “pay” attention is not a metaphor: Attending to something is an economic exercise, an exchange with uncertain returns.

9.) An essential question is, “What form of attention does this phenomenon require? That of reading or seeing? That of writing also? Or silence?”

11.) “Mindfulness” seems to many a valid response to the perils of incessant connectivity because it confines its recommendation to the cultivation of a mental stance without objects.

13.) The only mindfulness worth cultivating will be teleological through and through.

14.) Such mindfulness, and all other healthy forms of attention—healthy for oneself and for others—can only happen with the creation of and care for an attentional commons.

15.) This will not be easy to do in a culture for which surveillance has become the normative form of care.

16.) Simone Weil wrote that ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’; if so, then surveillance is the opposite of attention.

20.) We cannot understand the internet without perceiving its true status: The Internet is a failed state.

25.) Building an alternative digital commons requires reimagining, which requires renarrating the past (and not just the digital past).

26.) Digital textuality offers us the chance to restore commentary to its pre-modern place as the central scholarly genre.

31.) Blessed are they who strive to practice commentary as a legitimate, serious genre of responsiveness to others’ thoughts.

32.) And blessed also are those who discover how to write so as to elicit genuine commentary.

38.) To work against the grain of a technology is painful to us and perhaps destructive to the technology, but occasionally necessary to our humanity.

42.) Our current electronic technologies make competent servants, annoyingly capricious masters, and tragically incompetent gods.

54.) The contemporary version of the pathetic fallacy is to attribute agency not to nature but to algorithms—as though humans don’t write algorithms. But they do.

62.) The chief purpose of technology under capitalism is to make commonplace actions one had long done painlessly seem intolerable.

63.) Embrace the now intolerable.

71.) The Dunning-Kruger effect grows more pronounced when online and offline life are functionally unrelated.

72.) A more useful term than “Dunning-Kruger effect” is “digitally-amplified anosognosia.”

77.) Consistent pseudonymity creates one degree of disembodiment; varying pseudonymity and anonymity create infinite disembodiment.

Wellmon opens the dialogue concerning the theses:

But this image of a sovereign self governing an internal economy of attention is a poor description of other experiences of the world and ourselves. In addition, it levies an impossible burden of self mastery. A distributive model of attention cuts us off, as Matt Crawford puts it, from the world “beyond [our] head.” It suggests that anything other than my own mind that lays claim to my attention impinges upon my own powers to willfully distribute that attention. My son’s repeated questions about the Turing test are a distraction, but it might also be an unexpected opportunity to engage the world beyond my own head.

If we conceive of attention as simply the activity of a willful agent managing her units of attention, we foreclose the possibility of being arrested or brought to attention by something fully outside ourselves. We foreclose, for example, the possibility of an ecstatic attention and the possibility that we can be brought to attention by a particular thing beyond our will, a source beyond our own purposeful, willful action.

–Chad Wellmon, opening the dialogue about the theses

 In my theses I am somewhat insistent on employing economic metaphors to describe the challenges and rewards of attentiveness, and in so doing I always had in mind the root of that word, oikonomos (οἰκονόμος), meaning the steward of a household. The steward does not own his household, any more than we own our lifeworld, but rather is accountable to it and answerable for the decisions he makes within it. The resources of the household are indeed limited, and the steward does indeed have to make decisions about how to distribute them, but such matters do not mark him as a “sovereign self” but rather the opposite: a person embedded in a social and familial context within which he has serious responsibilities. But he has to decide how and when (and whether) to meet those responsibilities. So, too, the person embedded in an “attention economy.”

–Alan Jacobs, engaging in the dialogue


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