A few years ago, in a supermarket, I swiped my bank card to pay for groceries. I watched the little screen, waiting for its prompts. During the intervals between swiping my card, confirming the amount and entering my PIN, I was shown advertisements. Clearly some genius had realized that a person in this situation is a captive audience.
Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it. And yet we’ve auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging. Lately, our self-appointed disrupters have opened up a new frontier of capitalism, complete with its own frontier ethic: to boldly dig up and monetize every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention. In the process, we’ve sacrificed silence — the condition of not being addressed. And just as clean air makes it possible to breathe, silence makes it possible to think.
What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common? Perhaps, if we could envision an “attentional commons,” then we could figure out how to protect it.
I don’t want any record of my days.
For a long time, I’ve wanted to keep a diary. I tried throughout adolescence but always gave it up. I dreamt of being very frank, like Joe Orton, whose diaries I admired very much; I found them in the library when I was about 14. I read them half out of literary interest and half as pornography, thrilled to follow Joe around the many corners of the city in which I had only walked but he had managed to have illicit sex. I thought: If you’re going to write a diary, it should be like this, it should be utterly free, honest. But I found I couldn’t write about sexual desires (too shy, too dishonest), nor could I describe any sexual activity—I wasn’t getting any—and so the diary devolved into a banal account of fake crushes and imagined romance and I was soon disgusted with it and put it aside. A bit later I tried again, this time concentrating only on school, like a Judy Blume character, detailing playground incidents and friendship drama, but I was never able to block from my mind a possible audience, and this ruined it for me: It felt like homework. I was always trying to frame things to my advantage in case so-and-so at school picked it up and showed it to everybody. The dishonesty of diary writing—this voice you put on for supposedly no one but yourself—I found that idea so depressing. I feel that life has too much artifice in it anyway without making a pretty pattern of your own most intimate thoughts. Or maybe it’s the other way ’round: Some people are able to write frankly, simply, of how they feel, whereas I can’t stop myself turning it into a pretty pattern.
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After the latest Boko Haram massacre, I called my brother in Nigeria — and finally started to understand what I’ve been missing.
In a year in which we saw time and time again how little black lives matter in the U.S. it was a sad reminder that to most Americans, African lives mean even less.
I couldn’t understand it. Why is it like this? Why can’t people see? Racism, yes, but not just racism; people I know to be dedicated to social justice had nothing to say about what had happened in Borno State.
But in the height of my self-righteous outrage I realized something: I hadn’t talked to my brother.
As a senior in college, I took a class on Jane Austen—a great class with, it must be said, a weird vibe. Almost all of the students were women (out of around a hundred people, only five or ten were men), and it was a hothouse of Jane Austen obsession. In the first lecture, the professor identified herself as a Janeite—a member of “the curious American cult of Jane Austen,” according to the BBC—and, when she asked if we were Janeites, too, scores of people raised their hands.
If anything, the fervor of the Janeites puts into relief a fact almost too obvious to notice: the world of books is a romantic world. Romance structures literary life, and to be a reader is, often, to follow its choreography, from susceptibility and discovery (“I just saw it there in the bookstore!”) to infatuation, intimacy, identification, and obsession. We connect with books in an intellectual way, but the most valuable relationships we have with them are emotional; to say that you merely admire or respect a book is, on some level, to insult it. Feelings are so fundamental to literary life that it can be hard to imagine a way of relating to literature that doesn’t involve loving it. Without all those emotions, what would reading be?
Dr Kwakkel is making an unlikely name for himself on the internet by posting “medieval eye candy” that he comes across during the course of his research.
And the doodles are by far the most popular.
A summer afternoon at the Reichstag. Soft Berlin light filters down through the great glass dome, past tourists ascending the spiral ramp, and into the main hall of parliament. Half the members’ seats are empty. At the lectern, a short, slightly hunched figure in a fuchsia jacket, black slacks, and a helmet of no-color hair is reading a speech from a binder. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany and the world’s most powerful woman, is making every effort not to be interesting.
American politics is so polarized that Congress has virtually stopped functioning; the consensus in Germany is so stable that new laws pour forth from parliament while meaningful debate has almost disappeared.
“The German self-criticism and self-loathing are part of the success story—getting strong by hating yourself,” Mariam Lau, a political correspondent for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, told me. “And Merkel had to reëducate herself, too. She’s part of the self-reëducation of Germany.”
I had just arrived home from my summer vacation — a week in a Minnesota cabin whose brochure warned “no crabbiness allowed” — when I came upon a study that declared New York the “unhappiest city in America.” I doubt many people were surprised by the results — New Yorkers, both in lore and reality, can be hard to please, and famously outspoken about their grievances — but as a born-and-raised New Yorker, and as a philosopher, I was suspicious of how the study defined happiness.
The survey in question, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asked how “satisfied” Americans were with their lives — very satisfied, satisfied, dissatisfied or very dissatisfied. But the National Bureau of Economic Research used the data to conclude things about their “happiness.” Some might not have minded that the terms satisfaction and happiness were used interchangeably, but I did. The study was titled “Unhappy Cities,” and the headlines that followed it came out swinging against New Yorkers.
I was certain that a person (even a New Yorker) could be both dissatisfied and happy at once, and that the act of complaining was not in fact evidence of unhappiness, but something that could in its own way lead to greater happiness.
At times like this I appreciate philosophers’ respect for words, and a number of them have argued to keep happiness separate from satisfaction. In his 1861 essay “Utilitarianism,” John Stuart Mill carefully distinguished between the two, saying that a person can be satisfied by giving the body what it craves, but that human happiness also involves motivating the intellect. This means that happiness and satisfaction will sometimes conflict, and that those of us who seek happiness, and even attain it, may still be dissatisfied. Mill considered this a good thing: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
The 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, one of history’s best-known pessimists, also believed there was more to life than satisfaction. Better to honestly describe a negative world, he believed, than to conceal it with beautiful lies. That sounds very New York.
There’s plenty to complain about when living in a big city: overcrowding, potholes, high prices, train delays, cyclists, bees. When I was growing up in Rockaway and schlepping to school in Brooklyn, it was perfectly normal to complain, and almost everyone I knew did. Our complaining was not an indicator of our level of happiness. In my experience outside the city, however, people routinely misinterpret my casual expressions of dissatisfaction as unhappiness. They consider complaining to be a sign of negativity, which they think should be replaced with positivity in order to be happy. “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” is an example of this ubiquitous, if banal, attitude.
When I relocated to Texas, I quickly learned that kvetching about rain was no longer socially acceptable. “We need it!” became my new small-talk response to rain to avoid being dubbed a Debbie Downer. In a world where cheerfulness is applauded and grumpiness frowned upon, those who express dissatisfaction are often politely bullied to “look on the bright side” of rotten things.