Continuous Partial Enjoyment

As ‘The Future’ of the 21st Century unfolds I’ve had an idea preying on my mind. There’s a feeling I experience when under the control of the many modes of gamification modern media deploys, some shared effect of BuzzFeed, mobile games, in-app purchase systems, social media and so much of the current digital landscape. I’ve taken to calling it Continuous Partial Enjoyment.

Continuous Partial Enjoyment is Continuous Partial Attention 2.0 — not only are you attending to something, it is making you feel good. But not too good.

Apologies for making that last paragraph sounds like an Adam Curtis voiceover.

An optimum state of CPE is found in many things — a lengthy journey down the clickhole of BuzzFeed, a sustained CandyCrush progression, a Netflix binge of comfort TV, a steadily refreshed Twitter feed when something juicy is going on. At these times we are in the CPE zone. A wry smile, a chuckle or two, a very low-level adrenalin rush, the urge to pull-to-refresh and continue the flow of low-level endorphins.

It’s also lucrative — keep someone in that zone and the money starts rolling in. The CPE zone is where in-app purchases, native advertising and bingewatching live. It’s the workplace of clickbait headline writers and all those other new job titles that wouldn’t make sense even a decade ago.

So, CPE seems pretty benign — in a world of urban stress and media enhanced fear who doesn’t need a bit of enjoyment?—but it worries me. I can’t help but feel that CPE is an empty calorie, commercially weaponised version of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls Flow — the Wikipedia article on Flow describes it as:

the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity

Achieving Flow takes a lot of practice and usually involves a challenging task and a high level of skill. CPE gives you a cheap imitation of Flow without either. It also removes any real positive outcome from entering the state— most CPE task are of very little value (unless CandyCrush mastery becomes an in-demand life skill.)

The logic of Late Capitalism ensures that we’ll use the continuing advances in neuroscience to perfect the tools to induce CPE and apply it everywhere it can turn a profit. Have we finally given ourselves the tools to really amuse ourselves to death?

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