digital barbarism

Trump’s Firing of Sessions: A Test of Our Attention

Remember a week ago, when Trump fired Jeff Sessions, the U.S. Attorney General, in an attempt to impede the Mueller investigation?

Sorry, that was a trick question. Trump fired Sessions fewer than 72 hours ago, but you could be forgiven for having the sense that more time had passed.

A quick check of various digital front pages this morning reveals that the story of Sessions’ firing and the appointment of Trump crony Matthew G. Whittaker as acting Attorney General has already fallen below the fold and off our collective radar.

What has been called Trump’s “slow motion Saturday Night Massacre,” (a reference to Richard Nixon’s firing of multiple Justice Department officials in a single night to impede the Watergate investigation) is on the verge of being ignored, a failure of attention that will weaken our democracy. Nixon’s massacre inspired mass, sustained, bipartisan umbrage, while Trump’s is already being forgotten.

This is an occasion where analog media would help us. The time scarcity of appointment television and the limited space of newsprint had the effect of focusing our collective attention on a single issue long enough to appreciate its significance and organize mind and body to act on it. The promiscuous allocation of attention that digital media spurs us to, both by journalists reporting the news and people consuming it, doesn’t give us enough time even to form thoughts, much less opinions. There are indeed many stories worthy of occupying our attention, not least among them the tragic deaths of 11 people in the most recent mass shooting in California, or the wildfires there. But if we are to combat our promiscuous attention spans, we have to be chaste about what we choose to pay attention to.

In the battle to keep our democracy healthy, what we choose to pay attention to from moment to moment is decisive. And right now, the President’s attempt to corrode the rule of law is what demands our undivided national attention, no matter how worthy other topics may be.

When our devices don’t let us forget, we can’t move on.

As the record of our daily written communication is fused with our phones, something sinister is happening to our memories of other people, especially those who have died.

William Gibson has described information technology as a form of prosthetic memory, and I agree with him. Written language exists as much to store the past as it does to communicate the present. Accounting records may actually have been the first use of written language, which would make extending human memory writing’s primal function.  Inscriptions to memorialize the glory of the powerful dead followed soon after.

Luke O’Neil recently recounted the strangeness of living with his late father’s last text messages. They record banalities, but also invite him to further communication with the dead every day, hovering just at the edge of his attention, like an advertisement. What he and his father tapped out without a thought have, by proximity alone, been asked to bear the weight of mourning, and they are doing a poor job of it.

We have always used written communication to remember the dead. We have had letters and books and tombstone inscriptions, but these are all deliberately chosen and set aside from daily life. Before digital communication, we could choose to remember our dead in a way that was true and relevant. In contrast, our accidental digital memorials are shoved at us every day by the grim mechanics of our technology. We live forever in the horror of Emily Dickinson’s vision of banality at the last moment: “I heard a fly buzz when I died.”

I have written elsewhere about the need to relieve ourselves from the burden of perfect digital memory, and how Marshall McLuhan got it right when he said:

“The future will be an electrically computerized dossier bank – that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early ‘mistakes’.”

Our prosthetic memory is attached to us at too many nerve endings. When we can remember everything, memory is simply noise. We burn out on memory and, by extension, the present moment, which is no less than life itself.