Sustained attention under internet conditions
“The most sustained focus that internet allows for is coding”
- Justin E.H. Smith, The Internet is Not What You Think It Is (2022)
Smith’s book is largely about the ways in which the internet–internet devices, internet-saturated environments, internet culture–limits or damages the human capacity for sustained attention. The idea may be polemical and overstated. There are any number of online media, especially of the video or game-driven sort, that go several steps beyond fostering sustained attention: they go all the way to addiction. But as far as productive human activities go, I think Smith may be onto something. Maybe there is so much software in the world today because we live in an attention ecology that is particularly conducive to this form of labor. Maybe coding is still a viable form of attention because it is “native” to the screen, both born of and resulting in the digital environment. In an age of automation, there is a certain sense to the idea that some of the last creative people are the ones designing the automation.
The concept of “literate programming” in computer science is usually attributed to Donald Knuth. It’s a proposal that code and documentation should be equal partners with one another, or even that most of what counts as coding would be a form of writing about code. Within this model the actual code would occur occasionally, parenthetically, once its meaning and purpose has been thoroughly explained. The idea is quite romantic, and often-dismissed in any kind of industry setting, or any other where code is primarily written to do something. But I like to think of a world, maybe hundreds of years in the future, where writing or maintaining code has become an all-consuming, near-universal human activity, where people begin to rediscover real writing–expressive, prose writing–through a delight hidden inside the instructions given to machines.
code writing attention futurism