Schizomedia and the denial of FLOW
PS: "the internet" doesn't have to be this way; we could have our digital cake and eat it too -- but then some billionaires would make less money ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I was reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's 1990 classic FLOW, and I was lingering on this passage:
Some individuals might be constitutionally incapable of experiencing flow. Psychiatrists describe schizophrenics as suffering from anhedonia, which literally means 'lack of pleasure.' This symptom appears to be related to 'stimulus overinclusion,' which refers to the fact that schizophrenics are condemned to notice irrelevant stimuli, to process information whether they like it or not. The schizophrenic's tragic inability to keep things in or out of consciousness is vividly described by some patients: 'Things just happen to me now, and I have no control over them. I don't seem to have the same say in things anymore. At times I can't even control what I think about.' Or: 'Things are coming in too fast. I lose my grip of it and get lost. I am attending to everything at once and as a result I do not really attend to anything.'
And then I see Charlie Warzel’s substack newsletter “Galaxy Brain” about all-things-internet has landed in my inbox, with “Bo Burnham and the Online Condition.”
He introduces it with this:
There’s a television show called Dog With A Blog that ran on the Disney Channel from 2012 to 2015. I’ve never seen this show, nor have I even watched clip of it online. But, for a time when I worked at BuzzFeed, people used to make jokes about it and now, without fail, this TV show pops into my head at least once every two weeks. The phrase “dog with a blog” echoes in my head for hours. Sometimes, I sing it to the tune of the old Kid Rock song “Bawitdaba.”
Dog with a blog, da bang, da dang diggy diggy, diggy, said the boogie, said up jump the boogie
My name is kiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiid
I hate my brain for this. But it is the brain I have.
He describes Bo Burnham’s Netflix special as having crystalized this experience, which is…
…the product of a overstimulated mind — one that’s so used to processing endless random morsels of tantalizingly packaged information that one’s synaptic connections start to scramble. To live in this state is to feel like your neurons are firing indiscriminately, constantly cycling both extremely important and totally worthless shit into your consciousness. Some of these thoughts are connected, but many are not. A terrifying headline about people suffering from long Covid is followed by a friend texting you a YouTube video from eight years ago of a brick bouncing inside a washing machine (7.2 million views!). Then, you remember you forgot to use the Cash App to pay your therapist for your May sessions. Hey! Jeff Bezos is going to space! Also, it seems like not enough people liked that Instagram of your beach trip this weekend. All of it blurs into some kind of exhausting cognitive slurry. This is all happening inside your head but it somehow feels beyond your control.
FLOW was published in 1990, before Web 1.0 was really a thing, let alone the algorithm-mediated social networks of nonstop personally-tailored and 24-7-streamed information that we wallow in today; so Csikszentmihalyi was certainly not saying “Internet Brain is like Schizophrenia.”
He was just describing how one mental state may deny us access to the most desirable mental state, which he studied and documented in people around the world, and which he dubbed "flow." The book’s primary purpose is describing and explaining how people enter and experience that marvelous mental state around the world and in all kinds of ways — through their work, their play, their reading, their creating… climbing mountains, milking cows, even affixing electronic components on an assembly line! “Flow” can come in as many varieties as there are people — the universal features involve meaningful (to the person) action, developing and employing skills, immediate feedback, and an un-self-conscious way of thinking that develops the self and makes people feel more themselves.
Where this gets interesting is that game, web, and interaction designers have in recent years used Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of "flow" to hack attention at scale using apps — designing the apps so that they trick the mind into that entrancing lane, where things feel meaningful, where people feel skillful, where people feel like they’re getting immediate feedback… this is the reason I knew the book existed! But it’s not just Charlie Warzel and Bo Burnham whose minds have been disorganized and colonized by the flow-like attention-hack experience of Web 2.0. And ironically, the resultant experience for a lot of "users" is close to anhedonic schizophrenia -- the exact mental state Csikszentmihalyi cites as preventing access to flow!
So it's like "the internet" has hacked us into a fake flow state that makes attaining a real flow state impossible.
It’s like a drug that makes you feel good at first, and then, as its powers decline over time to making you feel just ok, it nonetheless dams off every other source of good feelings.
Social media can be compared to a drug, sure. And drugs often induce mental states that are possible without drugs but difficult to achieve: ecstasy, complete calm.
If social media is similar to a drug, it's a drug that induces a mental state that otherwise few of us would ever experience: schizophrenia.
A mental state where we are “condemned to notice irrelevant stimuli, to process information whether [we] like it or not” — dog with a blog, da bang, da bang diggy. “I am attending to everything at once and as a result I do not really attend to anything.” This is all happening inside your head but it somehow feels beyond your control. We experience a “'lack of pleasure’ . . . related to 'stimulus overinclusion’ ”; a phenomenon to which Warzel says, I hate my brain for this. But it is the brain I have…
He sounds helpless, but I don’t think he is. My seven-year-old child told me something very wise recently; she said: “sometimes I have to tell my brain what to do.”