It’s 2016, and Skynet doesn’t need to send Terminators to wipe us out. A new gaming app ought to do the trick.
I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed, made starving and hysterical by Kim and Amber posting a selfie.
The over-the-top tomfoolery of the current election in the U.S. The crumbling of even minimal scientific literacy. The Kardashians.
We’re living in a culture that can’t stop asking if it can haz cheezburger, and it is rendering us … stupid.
Right? Wrong? Maybe.
Yes, we are distracted
And yes, that’s a problem.
I asked the most “plugged-in” person I know, Howard Rheingold — he’s Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future, as well as a Studied Lecturer on Virtual Community/Social Media at Stanford — what he thinks about social media distraction.
Here’s what he had to say about it:
It’s legitimate to claim that our use of social media may be making us shallow, and it’s hard to dispute the finding of [the] Pew Internet and American Life survey that one in six Americans admit to bumping into someone or something while texting and walking …
If there's ever a reason not to text and walk here it is. pic.twitter.com/wFXmgwEvpr
— The Darwin Awards (@AwardsDarwin) February 3, 2016
If you’re looking for reason to despair at the future of our civilization, all you need to do is get into a car. The roads are blocked with drivers pulling ever-more random moves while updating Periscope and playing game after game of Dumb Ways to Die, Cruel Irony Edition.
Everyone in my circle has been talking about Cal Newport’s latest book, Deep Work. His core point — that you can excel in many pursuits and professions simply by cultivating an ability to focus — is an intriguing one.
I don’t agree with everything in Newport’s book. His chapter on social media is a little embarrassing. But I think he’s onto something with his focus on … focus.
He’s not alone, of course. As always in times of profound social change, there’s a long list of backlash books, including Nicholas Carr’s lauded The Shallows (which, maybe intentionally, takes its time in getting to the point) as well as more strident polemics like Andrew Keen’s The Internet Is Not the Answer.
Many of the critics worry about permanent brain changes (or damage, depending on your viewpoint) caused by chronic distraction.
We know now that our environment does physically change the brain in significant ways — and, in fact, that technology has always deeply changed us.
Whether or not the worst of these changes are irreversible is hard to say. The science is very new, and it’s a bad internet habit to get overly attached to the latest breathless “reporting” on neuroscience.
But we are getting rewired, and it’s probably a good idea to keep an eye on that.
Yes, social media is a big part of the problem
We have games, and apps, and on-demand information, and hyperlinked text, and all of these are shaping us.
But probably no technology is as guilty of the dark side of distraction as the internet social platforms. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, Blab … wherever it is that you like to hang out instead of thinking about something thorny.
Even when they’re valuable, social platforms can gobble a depressing amount of time. Worse is losing time and energy getting into internet squabbles with people who have no commitment to any form of critical thinking.
Note that even Neil DeGrasse Tyson got sucked into a fight about whether or not the earth is round. (Spoiler: Yes.)
We have more access to shocking stupidity than we ever have before. We get to see the outpourings of everyone’s sad, ignorant uncle on Facebook. Entire political candidacies have been based on this.
(And because of confirmation bias, I have my own candidate in mind when I write that … and you have yours when you read it.)
I’m not young enough to be a digital native, but I’ve been online longer than many of them have. (That’s why I sometimes call myself a Social Media Ent.)
I’ve been in online communities since 1989 — and they’ve looked surprisingly similar in all that time. They’ve always taken a lot of time and mental energy, and bickering has always played a bigger role than we might hope.
So should we quit virtual community?
So is the answer to just stay away from online communities altogether? Are they a complete waste of time?
In fact, I made a digital connection first to every person who works in my company.
Social media platforms (I happen to like Twitter) are the water cooler that lets my distributed company goof off together. I can talk quilting with Andrea, watch for Florida Man sightings with Jess, and promise Jerod $100 if he’ll wear a granny-square sweater vest to our live event in October.
And from that experience, I can tell you with certainty that digital community is real community.
It allows for shallowness (and so does any church picnic), but it does not require shallowness.
For those who seek deep connections, online communities can be places to share joys and sorrows, argue, make up, form close friendships, find romantic relationships, and help one another grieve.
The internet is not going away
We don’t really get to opt out of a world shaped by distraction, any more than people who lived through the Industrial Revolution could opt out of a world shaped by mass production.
We can control what we do, how we connect, what we choose to adopt or not. But the world is the world. The economy is the economy.
The internet provides opportunities to do things we couldn’t do before. From my Ent-like perspective, the key is to keep paying attention, to take advantage of the benefits, and to cultivate habits that mitigate the damaging aspects.
People have been arguing against the changes brought by revolutionary technologies at least since Socrates decried the newfangled, memory-destroying technology of writing.
Walter Ong wrote that, despite the beauty and artistry of oral culture, written language is:
… absolutely necessary for the development not only of science but also of history, philosophy, explicative understanding of literature and of any art, and indeed for the explanation of language (including oral speech) itself … Writing heightens consciousness.
There’s every reason to think that internet-enabled culture will do the same, but we will surely lose something along the way — just as we did when we moved from an oral to a written culture.
The power (and tyranny) of options
There’s one point about social media that I’ll agree with the critics on: if you don’t find it valuable, you don’t have to be there.
There are plenty of experts who insist that we “have to be” on social media to promote a business or expand our professional networks.
But you don’t. If you don’t find value on the social web, don’t participate. If you have other rich and meaningful communities in your life, spend your time there. The powerful value of choice is … choice. We get to decide if it adds or subtracts.
You can follow Neal Stephenson’s example, which Cal Newport makes a great deal of, and stay off Twitter so you can focus on your work.
Or you can follow Neil Gaiman’s (or Salman Rushdie’s, or Margaret Atwood’s, or Gary Shteyngart’s, or Susan Orleans’s, or Augusten Burroughs’s, or … you get the picture) example and participate in a way that respects your creative output.
Even better, you get to cherry pick the technologies that serve you.
Ned Ludd, the 18th-century weaver whose name survives in the word Luddite, didn’t have the option of opting out. The industrial revolution was coming for his industry and his fellow artisans no matter what he did. He had no way to take control of the ultra costly means of production.
Today, as Brian Clark has said, the means of production are between our ears.
Here’s the rest of what Howard Rheingold had to say:
The technology itself may afford distraction, offer an opportunity for shallow thinking, but does not in itself force anything. The key is know-how: Look at your child, not your phone, when he or she is talking to you! And teach your children to pay attention to where they are directing their attention.
You have a luxury that few people on this planet have ever enjoyed before you. You don’t have to be born with a lot of money or means. You just have to choose — how (and whether) you’ll work with the new technology.
How not to haz the dumb
Man, it really feels like we’re getting a lot stupider as a culture.
Oddly, the evidence doesn’t support that conclusion. IQ appears to be steadily rising, a phenomenon sometimes called the Flynn Effect.
People living in the past just weren’t as smart as we think they were.
The San Francisco Chronicle had this to say about Nicolas Carr’s book:
This is a lovely story well told — an ode to a quieter, less frenetic time when reading was more than skimming and thought was more than mere recitation.
But our views of a rosy past are nearly always nostalgic fiction. The leisurely deep reader was always an anomaly.
Trust me, I was this person. Even at university, I was the oddball who read too much and earnestly flung myself into texts asking myself what it meant. I was lucky enough to find my tribe of fellow geeks and readers — and I found them online.
Facebook and the other social sites expose us to more outright dumb statements and expressions, but those folks were presumably always that dumb. We just didn’t get wind of it before.
Which was, I’ll admit, kind of nice.
I’d like to propose ten “rules” (really just suggestions) I follow to get the best from the social web, while protecting my ability to focus and work. I hope you’ll find some or all of them useful.
#1: Schedule your distraction time
This smart suggestion comes from Newport’s Deep Work, and I’m getting a lot out of it.
You’re probably doing at least some time-blocking now, to schedule periods when you work on more focused projects. (If you aren’t, you should start.)
Newport suggests you also schedule the time when you’re going to take your “shallow” breaks — whether it’s to surf YouTube, log onto social media, build the Empire State Building in Minecraft or Lego, or whatever floats your relaxation boat.
Putting time boundaries around social media is a fantastic way to keep your connections without losing every minute of your productive time.
(By the way, I’ve been looking at apps to manage this for me — there’s no sense burning self-control when I can let the machine enforce the boundaries. So far I haven’t found one that’s just right, but if you have one you love, let us know in the comments!)
#2: Keep your phone in your pocket
This one is also from Newport, and it’s advanced — but it’s worth it.
When you’re waiting in line, waiting to get your meal at a restaurant, or (please) waiting at a red light … resist the urge to reach for your phone.
Let yourself be a tiny bit bored for a minute or two. Pay attention to what’s going on around you.
If you get truly desperate you might even have a conversation with the human being next to you.
Filling every second up with distraction will eventually turn you into an overgrown toddler who can’t tolerate even a moment of boredom or mental discomfort. And that is not a powerful person.
If you’re going out of your mind trying to figure out how to spend those three minutes, you can always do some mindfulness breathing.
The more panicked you’re getting thinking about doing this, the more you probably need to.
#3: Adopt the FFS rule
I have a social media rule that I use to keep out of flat-earth conversations. I call it the FFS Rule.
(That stands for For Freya’s Sake, of course.)
The first time I see something online (Facebook is the worst offender for me) that makes me say, “Oh FFS,” it’s time to log off.
If something genuinely egregious is happening, instead of getting into social media flame wars over it, write a letter to a legislator. Or find an organization that’s working to fix the Bad Thing and volunteer some time. Or even write a blog post or record a podcast.
Flame wars don’t change people’s minds; they just entrench everyone involved in their own smug funk of righteousness.
#4: Develop a critical thinking habit
“Do your research” is the “I know you are but what am I” of the 21st century. – My husband
The web offers an endless supply of nonsense — and we need our sharpest critical thinking skills to protect ourselves from foolishness.
When you see something compelling online, ask yourself, always, “What is the source of that statement and why should I find it credible?”
By the way, you’ll want to double down on any expressions that agree with your own biases. If it’s a statement that seems profoundly true to you, it’s worth a second and third look to make sure you’re evaluating the source fairly.
(Even then, you’ll be subject to confirmation bias. Recognize it.)
There are no reliable gatekeepers checking the facts for you. You’re responsible now for what you choose to find credible.
The ability to reserve judgment, to weigh the evidence, and to change your mind based on new evidence is a superpower. Grab it.
#5: Take advantage of opportunities to educate yourself
No, Google University doesn’t count.
But there are a lot of credible, deep resources that will allow us to study serious topics without enrolling in a university.
Maybe you’re like my real estate agent, who watches MOOCs on brain science in her spare time.
Or maybe you’d benefit from working on a “Personal MBA” under the guidance of Josh Kaufman, and sparing yourself the six-figure college debt.
There’s a juicy world of learning available to you. Go get it.
#6: Seek out meatspace
The online world can be rich and robust, but it is not the physical world. (Or “meatspace,” as my dorky virtual community friends have called it.)
When you can combine the two, the real power starts to kick in. If you can make a face-to-face connection with the people you know online, you’ll deepen the relationships and open up new possibilities.
If you’re energetic and ambitious, you can do without it. Jon Morrow and I became friends online and have never met face to face, because he has issues that prevent him from doing a lot of traveling.
But meatspace brings a nice depth if it’s an option.
#7: Explore analog options
It’s fun living inside the Matrix and all, but it’s also useful to venture into the world of physical objects.
Learn to change a tire. Cook. Use a pen and paper. Grow a little garden.
Virtual tools can be wonderful, but keep a few analog tools as well.
You don’t have to give up your Kindle, but consider keeping a commonplace book and rewriting your Kindle highlights out by hand, to hit some more synapses.
Read physical books sometimes.
#8: Read books
Nicholas Carr’s book opens with a somewhat shocking account of the many university professors he knows who don’t read books any more.
Read books. Not because it’s “good for you” or somehow virtuous — but because it’s a rare and cheap pleasure that makes you smarter and makes you happy.
Most people who don’t read books think there’s something they’re “supposed” to be reading. If you don’t like business books or 800-page biographies or “serious literature” — don’t read them.
If Harry Potter or Percy Jackson turn your crank, go for it. (Let’s face it, they’re terrific.)
But a book can pull you in and immerse you in a world of ideas like nothing else can.
If your attention span is too fragmented for books, don’t just switch to podcasts and magazine articles. Read books in short bursts. Sit down for a few minutes at a time (set a timer). Keep nudging the time up.
Podcasts are great, videos are great, Wikipedia is great. But as a wonderfully pleasurable way to train yourself to think more deeply, nothing replaces books.
#9: Practice mindfulness
It’s probably not a coincidence that mindfulness is having a major moment at the same time that our attention spans are atomizing.
Meditation or mindfulness practice are excellent training to improve your ability to focus. They also build a habit of setting aside distraction for the reality in front of you.
You don’t need to meditate for hours a day to get benefits, but I do recommend a simple daily breathing practice, rather than the pre-recorded “guided meditations” that are popular on some of the meditation apps. There’s nothing wrong with those, but regular doses of simple, straight-up breathing meditation will help counter the effects of the distraction revolution. (And if you’re too antsy to sit, walking meditation can be a great alternative.)
For an introduction to the idea of mindfulness practice, I found Dan Harris’s 10% Happier to be both readable and useful.
#10: Crack open your gurus
The word guru just means teacher.
But in the West, we have a history of getting into trouble when we try to create infallible beings out of the people who teach us.
Around the Copyblogger virtual office, a lot of us are reading that latest Cal Newport book … but there are a few places where I think he gets it all wrong. And that’s totally fine.
In fact, you and I may differ in where we see his advice as being on — or off — the mark.
Good teachers help you see things differently, and give you the background to think though a problem for yourself. It’s up to you to crack the advice open and pull out the important stuff.
Structures that used to keep us moving in a reasonable direction are falling apart. The norms are splintering — which creates tremendous freedom, but greater responsibility. You have to create your own structure.
Now, maybe this is a terrible thing. Maybe it signals the inevitable decline of civilization.
But it’s here.
So we all have to grow up, to think as critically as we can, to maximize the benefits of the advice we follow and the technologies we use, and make the best use we have of the decades we have to work with.
I’d like to know what you think …
What role is distraction playing for you these days? Do you feel like you have a handle on how to manage it?
Has the internet been a savior or a devil in your life — or perhaps some of both?
I’d love it to hear your thoughts in the comments …