The Web of Distractions

A hot topic at the moment is the effect that the web age is having on our brains, and specifically issues regarding focus and concentration in the face of a relentless almost infinite flow of information we find ourselves swimming in.

Cases are being made both for and against the effect that it is having on our thought processes. Some claiming it is eroding our ability to concentrate, others that it may have positive effects, increasing our ability to remember and cope with multiple sets of data.

It seems that this debate is being cast as a kind of Luddite vs Technophile battle, but I think both sides have useful things to say.

Alain De Botton describes the situation we find ourselves in as thus:

One of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is the task of relearning how to concentrate. The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything. To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible.

Whilst he may be over dramatizing the effect, I find a lot of truth in what he says. Its something I’ve talked to other people about, this feeling that its becoming harder and harder to focus on individual things. I’m trying to work on it myself, but often feel like I am failing miserably.

De Botton argues this may be due to a new need to be constantly informed of events, as they happen.

The obsession with current events is relentless. We are made to feel that at any point, somewhere on the globe, something may occur to sweep away old certainties—something that, if we failed to learn about it instantaneously, could leave us wholly unable to comprehend ourselves or our fellows.

With the proliferation of ‘real-time’ web services such as Twitter this is becoming more and more apparent. I have noticed this need, if not to be connected at all times, at least be capable of being updated soon, and with minimum fuss.

In his new book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” Nicholas Carr argues that technology is destroying our ability to concentrate. As I said this is part of a current discussion which is investigating the effect that this brave new world is having on our human brains.

In his review of “The Shallows” for the New York Times, Jonah Lehrer shows that whilst this current debate is indeed of its time, it is not a new discussion at all.

Socrates started what may have been the first technology scare. In the “Phaedrus,” he lamented the invention of books, which “create forgetfulness” in the soul. Instead of remembering for themselves, Socrates warned, new readers were blindly trusting in “external written characters.” The library was ruining the mind.

Needless to say, the printing press only made things worse. In the 17th century, Robert Burton complained, in “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” of the “vast chaos and confusion of books” that make the eyes and fingers ache. By 1890, the problem was the speed of transmission: one eminent physician blamed “the pelting of telegrams” for triggering an outbreak of mental illness. And then came radio and television, which poisoned the mind with passive pleasure. Children, it was said, had stopped reading books. Socrates would be pleased.

For myself, I wouldn’t be of the opinion that the internet is ‘bad’ for us, indeed I would say that its positives far outweigh any perceived negatives, but I do feel that is having an effect on how we concentrate and focus. I have definitely felt what Carr described in his 2008 article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

This is something I am aware of, I do find my mind wandering away, even when I’m reading something fascinating. Carr attributes this to a decade of “spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet.”

I haven’t read Carr’s book (ironically), but I’d be interested in seeing what solutions (if any) he offers for this problem. Its kind of pointless to shake a fist at “the internet” for its effects; it isn’t going anywhere, nor should it, and its only going to burrow deeper and deeper into our lives. Just as the written word and the printed book did before.

The Wall Street Journal recently pitched Carr against Clay Shirky in a series of articles. Carr asks “Does The Internet Make You Dumber?“, whilst Shirky asks “Does it make your Smarter?“. It seems to me that Shirky takes less of scientific approach to the question at hand, and seems to address societal and cultural issues, whilst Carr appears to be more conscerned with neuroscience. (Although, Lehrer questions some of Carrs facts in his NYT review).

watching sid the science kid on the ipad
Photo owned by jencu (cc)

Its all fascinating stuff, but on a practical level, what can we do to cope in this digital world?

Clay Shirky opines:

The response to distraction, then as now, was social structure. Reading is an unnatural act; we are no more evolved to read books than we are to use computers. Literate societies become literate by investing extraordinary resources, every year, training children to read. Now it’s our turn to figure out what response we need to shape our use of digital tools.

De Botton, offers one solution, an information diet.

The need to diet, which we know so well in relation to food, and which runs so contrary to our natural impulses, should be brought to bear on what we now have to relearn in relation to knowledge, people, and ideas. Our minds, no less than our bodies, require periods of fasting.

I think we all do this from time to time, I know i’ve tried to. What I have found however, is less that I am not able to ‘disconnect’ but that when I ‘reconnect’ I feel the need to trawl back over everything I missed, and the feeling can be overwhelming. The last time I was off-line for even a few days, when I came back on I was slightly intimidated by all the information that had piled up; the unread tweets, Facebook updates and of course the reams and reams of RSS in my Google Reader.

Of course ‘a diet’, doesn’t have to mean ‘fasting’. I think the key maybe to be conscious of the stream of information you are absorbing and making an effort to slim it down, to focus on the less things, but absorb them more. I’ve blogged before on the various tools for reading and writing that can help with this, and I’m also beginning to feel the need to curate what I’m taking in, to not try and cover it all, but to focus and really absorb quality information rather than feed this insatiable hunger to see it all. I’m a technophile, most definitely not a Luddite, so I’m not about to through my laptop in a river, but I am increasingly aware of a need to cope with the levels of distractions.

Its tough though, a fact which is all the more apparent as I type this in one tab of my browser, next to 11 others currently open….

The new “Reader” feature in Safari 5

A few weeks ago I blogged about Readability, a tool which allows you isolate the content of a webpage and present it in a much more readable way. This, for me, has at least two major advantages, it can help improve the poor legibility/typography of many webpages and also helps focus you in on the content in a sea of millions of links, flashing ads and the likes, all trying to grab you away and click, click, click to somewhere else. Its a really great tool.

Yesterday Apple released the latest version of their web-browsing software, Safari 5 and they’ve built “Readability” type functionality directly into it, with a feature called “Reader“. When you are on an article or blogpost you can click a little button up in the address bar and immediately the content is plucked out and presented in a much clearer, focused way. It has minimal customization (as far as I can see) but allows you to increase/decrease text size. Its a really nice feature. I’m not a regular Safari user, but I’m giving it a go today to see how the latest version handles. So far, its pretty good, and things like the “Reader” feature are likely to keep me using. Readability has for the moment the edge with its customization options, but its nice to see browser makers addressing this need and building this directly into the browser.

Its becoming more and more prevalent this need to help users focus on the actual content they are looking for. As we open up more and more lines of communication and throw more and more at users its important that we can offer this content in a clear, straightforward manner.

Content is king!

See also: Readability’s creators on Safari 5