Law in the Internet Society

Me, the Machine, and Procrastination

-- By EmiL - 01 Jan 2017


I diagnosed myself as a Severe Procrastinator my sophomore year in college after turning in my first twenty-five page paper after having written and researched the entire thing in the previous twenty-four hours. Misunderstanding the graduate teaching assistant’s apathy and low standards for my intelligence, I downgraded my diagnosis to Moderate Procrastinator. I wish I had gotten an F because perhaps then, out of fear that my entire future would be jeopardized, I could have changed my ways. Alas, now I accelerate towards full-time adulting, the consequences of my most recent procrastination incidents strike me a more concerning both for my ability to become the kind of lawyer that I hope and believe I am capable of being as well as how it may limit my contributions to my family and community.

The Neverending Essay

Hard deadlines are the saving grace of high-functioning procrastinators. They are among the few things that induce sufficient panic and shame to bring us to complete tasks. So far as I can tell, completing tasks by arbitrary deadlines have never been a defining feature of this class. Which as a student genuinely interested in learning, I have appreciated. However, as future professional that must learn to use her discretion to complete tasks in a timely manner, this course has been my Achilles heel. To be fair, I haven’t done it alone. The Net has been my constant companion through all four of my failed attempts to complete this essay. Attempt two seemed promising— a critical analysis of various Black Mirror episodes’ depiction of the ultimate erasure of privacy— but then the Machine stepped in. Netflix’s Autoplay and a well-timed Seamless delivery conspired to rob me of time I had set aside to write my essay. My binge was cut short only when the mounting stress of an impending deadline for another project could no longer be suppressed by Charlie Brooker’s dystopian unrealities.

By my third attempt, I had relegated Black Mirror to a conversation at Arts & Crafts and had come up with some other brilliant idea that was much more deserving of the written word, rigorous feedback, and revision. But once weakness gave way to the numbing comfort of searching for Christmas presents on Amazon and the imminence of final exams thwarted my third attempt. Without the fear public shame, the machines gentle suggestion of “You may like this” or a seven second countdown was enough to derail my genuine academic interests.

A Christmas Gift

Eventually Eben will be required to submit grades, so a deadline does indeed exist to submit this essay. What does not have a deadline is actually changing my habits, learning skills necessary to be autonomous, trying to tell others about the true cost of “free” services. Since last April, I’ve told myself that I would sit down with my younger brother, a child of the new century, and really explain to him all I have learned about the implications of using his typical internet activity and encourage him to channel his enthusiasm for new technology into free software. Safe to say I’ve managed to put it off for the better part of a year. No deadline right.

Then on Christmas day, I watched my brother unwrap his last gift-- a Google Home. With a twinkle in his eye he raised it to the sky like young Simba as he thanked my mom profusely. I felt before I thought. A sinking feeling in my stomach as he raced to his room to find a place on the shelf for his new toy. Not only has my procrastination led to an exhausting and potentially destructive cycle when it comes to my academic career, but my failure to have a simple conversation had led to watch my brother coddle the device as if it were Precious rather than the expensive piece of surveillance equipment that it is. Worse still, my failure to change my own habits would have made any conversation I did try and have with him lack all credibility.

A New Year’s Resolution

Writing down these most recent moments of procrastination it is very clear to me that anyone reading this would likely just conclude that I am simply lazy or apathetic. That same thought has crossed my mind countless times in the moments after I’ve turned in an assignment just under the wire. But ultimately, I have rejected the notion that my procrastination is just a function of product of apathy. Not when it comes to freedom and the net. After eight months of messaging, what once seemed like hyperbole, employed as a pedagogical tool, I have now come to view a merely adequate description of the current state of the world. And yet, the my most drastic change I have made has been to keep my cellphone in a different room than where I am rather than toting it around.

But Eben always said that if you want people to change, tell them their children are at risk. I feel like I helped raise my brother, but so did the Internet. So I know that despite whatever psychological payoff I seemingly find in procrastinating on just about everything, watching my brother live a digital life completely unaware of what he is sacrificing, is enough to force me to take the basic steps to reclaim my autonomy. I will worry about changing the way our laws understand privacy later.

There are two important themes here, not necessarily closely-related enough to one another to work well in a short essay.

First, there's the theme of procrastination in your worklife. You see that there is a relationship between your mental acuity and your procrastination: if you were not capable of surviving the "tests" of educational evaluation while postponing preparation, the choice between timely preparation and failure would be stark. But you believe that the way you use time is a character failure, and that the best motivation for change is fear. These are unexamined assumptions that would benefit from a closer look.

Bright young students procrastinate in the US not only because they can (which would not be as true in a rote-memorization and cramming culture, policed by adult tyranny, such as many East Asian educational contexts), but also because they should. In a very competitive but not very demanding system, superbrights will be deprived of love of learning in the school setting---which does not adequately recognize what they can do and should be expected to do in learning---and will not believe in their successes, because they know how easily those evaluations can be won. They apply the effort required, which is slight, and invest their time in not doing schoolwork, which is not joyful.

Fear of failure is not a good motivator for learning, in general, and it works particularly poorly with those who can always get by. The result is an anxious life, but not optimal learning or optimal self-realization.

The second theme is really about the difficulties of teaching, which overlaps with the first theme in the imagined Eben who does not create deadlines that would inhibit procrastination, and the imagined Emi, who should have kept her brother from welcoming expensive surveillance equipment into his room.

Here, the teaching problem wasn't your failure to have a conversation you procrastinated. Trying to teach people not to want cool stuff because it might hurt them is not usually possible. With adolescents, the odds of success are reduced near zero. An object with that much apparent magic power must be improved upon rather than insulted, if the attraction to primate hormonal imbalance is to be counteracted. Writing about why it is hard to improve on this piece of surveillance crap in achieving every teenage boy's dream of automating his living space, while at the same time acknowledging the reasons young primates will have these wishes, would be a terrific essay.

As would be the recognition that ideas develop over time in even the fastest human mind. Why, therefore, giving thinking and writing as much "time in the cask" as possible is a reasonable goal for a powerful thinker. Why the relationship of mind-time to work-time is therefore complicated for all thought-workers, and more complicated for those whose cognitive powers are off the ordinary human scale, the "superbright" intellects on whom human society is always especially dependent, and about which it is always especially ambivalent. Why the oscillation between extension of thinking time and fear of failure that always impends and never quite happens is therefore a frequent psychological problem to such people. From this, a better and less automatic way to think about your own situation might result. And from the moment that oscillation ceases to be unconscious and automatic, it ceases to imprison you anymore.


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r2 - 12 Feb 2017 - 17:09:27 - EbenMoglen
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