In part 1 of this series, Billy expounded on the primary psychological hazards of what is considered normal functioning and societal participation in our current time: You don’t need to go out of your way to encounter endless digital distraction and information overload. You simply have to not be living in a cave.
He noted the need to unplug more often, not let the addiction take control, and left us with a moment of doing just that. But finding this balance is a struggle. And finding some way of being that doesn’t handle this familiar situation by oscillating wildly between “connection addiction” and the occasional complete unplug is harder still. Our times of disconnection may need to be more than an exhausted respite from being overwhelmed, if we are to truly enjoy them.
99 problems, but we all share two of them
I believe there are two connected issues, or aspects, that are unique to this modern conundrum. The first is speed. Looking for information used to take effort, and that effort took time. Now it’s coming at us from every direction. Our devices usually have always-on connections. Tablets are growing more prevalent and smartphones are the norm. It’s not only a matter of anything you want to know, but anything you want, being immediately accessible, downloadable, orderable, and shippable. Early in the era where anything could be Googled, there was still a time when you would get the CD, buy the book, and had to wait until you could physically plug in your iPod at home to get whatever podcast you were following synced up. There was no binge watching on Netflix, ramming a 5-year long narrative into your cranium at 500x normal speed and sacrificing the time we need to absorb and ponder the nuance of a good story.
We used to think that as computer power increased, the machines would calculate and work faster and faster while we watched. Instead it is we who process more, faster and more frantically, while the machines watch. Google indexes you, Facebook graphs your social life, and Netflix tries to guess what you’ll binge on next.
The second is not as obvious, but I think the right word for it is meta-narrative. It’s when we document and frame an experience into a story as it happens instead of simply enjoying the experience. For example, last year we visited Cheekwood Botanical Gardens here in Nashville, where the artist Bruce Munro (who literally works with light) had several large outdoor installations. For the first several minutes of our visit, I took in the experience just as any other visitor would. Then out came the smartphone, and I spent much of the visit snapping photos, taking video, looking for just the right angle and presentation. It wasn’t long before I realized that I wasn’t really seeing the gallery, absorbing it, allowing myself to have the moment. I was confining the experience to the layer presented by having my phone in front of me. Constructing a meta-narrative instead enjoying and being present in the actual narrative, the story of the art.
Of course this is nothing new – anyone with a camera was doing the same thing. But it’s a different mindset to show up with a camera and tripod (as many pros and serious amateurs did) for that express purpose, and to show up and switch into that mode almost reflexively. How many times have you been at dinner with friends and watched the meta-narrative about the evening and friends and food become almost more important than the actual evening and friends and food? We no longer only enjoy the moment- we must also capture ourselves enjoying the moment, talking about enjoying the moment, and making sure everyone else knows about it. Not in a story to relate later, but right now. I talk about enjoying dinner and play photographer and internet broadcaster while it happens. When did sharing a meal become so much work?
These aspects form the crux of the problem: We’ve created a world that we can’t keep up with. Humans have not evolved to process this much information, be this overwhelmed, or stay this busy. Socially, we aren’t equipped to handle being at a never ending party where we can hear everyone’s conversation and often their thoughts too. But that’s what we do every day on Facebook, Twitter, and the like. For all but the most extroverted among us (and maybe them too) it’s exhausting. If you’ve used the internet and had email long enough you probably notice this change- a sense of accelerated distraction, growing almost exponentially, that coincided with the arrival of social networking.
Welcome to the machine
The result is that we are the ghosts in the machine. We move through it like phantoms whose insubstantiality is directly proportional to the amount of distractedness we suffer and the shallowness of our attention.
We now have generations of people growing up exclusively in this environment, who don’t remember a time before every moment was so obsessively tuned into itself like a snake eating its own tail. Our culture is rarely good at considering the long-term implications of what we decide or adopt; It’s a consequence of free-market capitalism and the unquestioned idea that any kind of technological progress must also represent human progress. It takes at least 4 decades before we start to notice that something should be reconsidered- smoking, dumping toxins into the air and water, growing livestock with antibiotics and hormones, widespread prescription of ADD drugs, etc.
We’ll see what the levels of anxiety and stress are for 40-50 year-olds 40 or 50 years from now, but considering the various documented negative effects that people without a lifetime of immersion already experience from being perpetually connected (inability to concentrate, low self-esteem, trouble forming long-term memories, self-identity issues) it’s entirely reasonable to raise questions about the overall mental health of the people we expect to “run the country” in the near future. This isn’t just one generation’s typical naysaying about “these darn kids today” as though this were a difference of opinion about clothes, hairstyles, or music. We have introduced something radically different into society that the human mind has not previously experienced. Does this mean that it’s all bad? Of course not, few things are, and there is clear research indicating some benefits. Yet these positive results are gained in specific circumstances, mostly teaching non-internet users new research techniques. They aren’t reflective of constant immersion.
Yet we’re here, and so are you
You’re dealing on your side of the screen, as we are on ours, with the elephant that has slowly crept into the room while you’ve been reading; If digital overload and information saturation is something to be addressed, is there an inherent contradiction in running a website and communicating these ideas? How do we convincingly relate that everyone should probably unplug at least a little more while hoping that you’ll still read and subscribe to our site? Prune the tree, but please leave our branch intact?
This is even more acute for sites that are specifically focused on minimalism (zenhabits.net and unclutterer.com come to mind). Of course there’s always a point where the right de-cluttering and un-distracting advice at the right time may be what is needed. Certainly learning such things is a process, and isn’t it the point that at the end, you’re no longer reading Patrick Rhone’s Enough because you no longer need to?
Perhaps it is exactly the point that we pick up a book like “Enough” or a collection of tips like “Zen Habits” and then pass them on to a friend when done. But what I’ve often seen happen is that these things become a new distraction, a new thing to obsess over. A person who has a collection of books on minimalism and decluttering has arguably missed the point (and is also a commentary on the efficacy of self-help books). Even the author of zenhabits.net has struggled with this himself. Simplicity and focus takes tough decisions and work.
I’m dating myself here, but I’m old enough to truly relate. When I was in high school, I had exactly three interests: Science, science fiction, and learning to program my Atari 800XL. And I couldn’t dig through these any faster than I could get to the library, or afford the occasional book. Relevant magazines, only 1 or 2, came out once a month. The information flood was speed-limited by economics, transportation, and publishing schedules. To feed these interests, I had to work at it.
Now it’s easy. Really, ridiculously easy, in the same way that drowning in the Atlantic ocean probably takes little effort at all. This was not the future of computing we had in mind. Easy access to information, yes, but not drowning in it. How do we decide what truly interests us and cull down the avalanche? How do we keep ourselves from our own bad “getting sucked in” habits and merely dip a straw into the flow instead of drinking from a fire hose?
Cats and genies don’t return to bags and bottles
It’s no longer a matter of unplugging and being done with it. With so much interaction happening online, it’s not as simple as being the only one of your friends without an AOL account in 1997. You can’t significantly unplug without affecting other relationships. Your FOMO is not an illusion. If you leave the party and go home, the party is still going. It’s a serious challenge then, to balance maintaining real contact with people while avoiding the excess of potential ways to communicate.
In a recent discussion with another friend, this topic came up, along with the difficulty of doing something about it. We agreed that there are absolutely undeniable benefits; neither of us would want to give up having immediate access to our contact lists, calendars, and navigation apps. Neither of us want to shun friends and family that use Facebook for communication, or ignore these same people in a virtual fashion any more than we’d ignore them in person. Let’s be clear – no one is putting this cat back in the bag. It comes down to two words, we realized- discipline and focus. And after a lot of thought, my own conclusion is that there’s no shortcut, no easy way to do this.
We have in front of us a infinite jar of cookies. Yummy, delicious, chocolate peanut butter macadamia nut virtual cookies. And unlike real cookies, we can eat as many as we want and the jar never gets empty, we don’t get fat, and our stomachs don’t regret it later. There are no immediately obvious and fairly quick consequences that make our behavior self-correcting. Focus and discipline are the only things keeping us from gorging. That’s the hard part. I’d like to be able to end this on a more definitive note, give you a specific answer and course of action, but there’s not one. When Steve Jobs said “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple”, he was right about a lot more than product design. This is true about every part of life, in our current times. As Billy related at the end of part 1, the balance is yours to find. For me and him personally, this will be an ongoing examination.
Discipline and focus- how do you manage these in a time of information overload and connection superabundance? Let us know in the comments… if you aren’t disconnecting for a while.
For further reading that is not only good commentary on our always-connected lives, but also in-depth research into the tangible ways that our nervous systems and culture are being affected, I can recommend two great titles-