I came across this the other day and it’s been forcing me to think — and rethink — how I view the internet and all those things that bleep and boop and pop up that are sent through some web service. You can watch the whole thing, I’ll wait.
(You can also read the transcript here, if you like reading better — but Joe’s delivery is really good, so I recommend just watching the video.)
First: a bit of context. Joe Kraus isn’t just some guy talking about the web and the internet fostering a culture of distraction — he actually co-founded Excite.com, which was one of the early search engines back in the day when we really didn’t know what we were doing online, so search engines became a sort of hub and roadmap for doing things and finding information online (now it’s become so second-nature that we only use search engines when we’re looking for an answer to a question — if we don’t just jump to Wikipedia.org directly). So, I’d say he’s Kind Of a Big Deal. Coincidentally, Matt Mullenweg (of WordPress and Automattic) posted about the same talk on his blog and included the foreword of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, written in 1985 that talks about how it wasn’t George Orwell’s dystopian future we needed to worry about — it was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World that would be more dangerous.
The Microsoft phone commercial he plays at the beginning is as funny as it is telling. It’s funny because it’s telling, because as you watch it, you nod in agreement. Yep, I’ve seen that. You may not have seen two runners on their iDevices plow into each other while on their run, but you are familiar with the image of a group of people, heads down, poking at their phone.
I like to think that I’m above such things. I smile smugly as I read tales of people doing “a week without the internet” social experiments on themselves and think how that doesn’t really accomplish or prove anything. I tell myself that I’ve mastered the internet and all its distractions and come out the victor. I have convinced myself of this, in part, by disabling notifications that pop up and spending more time focussing on a single task rather than trying to do a million things at once. Those things help.
After watching Joe Kraus’s talk, though, one thing spoke to me more than the others. It wasn’t the joke that our ancestors who didn’t turn to look when they heard a rustle in the bush are no longer our ancestors or that girls between the ages of 13 and 17 average a colossal 4,000 texts a day — although those things obviously stood out. It was the idea that this culture of distraction atrophies our creativity that made me think. And worry. Not just for us as a culture or for my kids who in 10 years will be in that terrifying 13 – 17 age group but for myself, personally.
In high school, one of my life dreams was to be a writer. I could sit down with a notebook or a stack of paper and spit out a short story without any prompting. I didn’t need inspiration, I didn’t need special circumstances, I didn’t need anything. I could just sit and write. These days, it’s months, if not years, between writing attempts, and the most I ever get is a few pages in before it dissolves. I have big plans for stories, but no ideas of how to get there, and I end up going back to things I started writing but never finished and try to work on that stuff, only to have that fall apart as well. It’s as if I can’t concentrate and focus on the topic at hand. Maybe for one sitting, but not for several. The last thing of any length that I wrote was more than 10 years ago and that was never finished, either. A few months ago, my wife started writing. A story/novel/something without a name yet — it doesn’t really matter because she was writing. Sitting down, putting a pen on paper, and crafting a story. And I’m supposed to be the writer here (or, at least, that’s what I tell myself). When was the last time I’ve designed something that wasn’t a website? Years (like ten). And the last time I’ve done a web design that I thought was particularly unique or creative or innovative? I can’t remember. It’s been a while.
So when Joe is talking about how we’re working out our “being distracted” muscle and letting our other muscles (creativity, ability to focus on a single task without being distracted by some tangent) atrophy, it feels personal. I feel like that’s where I am now. And I don’t want to be.
I’ve been reading The Hunger Games trilogy and the Divergent series and the Inheritance cycle and watching A Game of Thrones which is based on George R. R. Martin’s epic series and wanting to write something that had the same kind of scope and all-encompassing world that is a complete reimagining of the world we know or something totally new and different. At one time, conceptualizing something like that would be easy — I love worldbuilding, and in high school I wrote a sci-fi/horror short story that merged a Battletech-like high-tech barren wasteland world with a dark fantasy one with wraiths and monsters and another story that was partially told by a disembodied brain in a jar in some science lab dreaming fantasies of escape and destruction. That stuff should be easy, but lately I’ve got nothing.
Joe Kraus says that’s because we don’t give ourselves time to think because we’re filling up all those gaps with stuff: distraction, games, reading some article about something from some tweet or RSS alert, or just checking our email. When was the last time anything in my inbox required my immediate and urgent attention? I couldn’t tell you. So why do I feel compelled to flip over to my other desktop and check my email every 10 minutes? I don’t know. Most of the time, these days, my Twitter window and my chat window are hidden behind other windows on my desktop — and since I’ve disabled alerts, I’m not bothered to look at either unless I make a choice to — and that’s pretty much okay. I’ve been better at getting things done that way. But it needs to be like that for everything, and all the time. If I’m ever going to write that novel I need to allow my brain to let ideas come, and that means switching off sometimes.
I have made a conscious decision, therefore, to cut down on distraction and give myself more opportunities to let my mind be at rest. I’m actually kind of looking forward to it partially because I might be able to actually read some books that have been on my reading list for a ludicrously long time, like the Sonja Blue series that’s been on my shelf, unread (by me, anyway) for more than 15 years (I’m not even kidding — I have the hardcover and it was printed in 1995, even granting that I got it from a book club, so maybe I didn’t get it until 1996, that’s still 16 years — about the age I was when I got the book in the first place). I’ve disabled push notifications on my iPod (when has there ever been anything that really needed my immediate attention?), I’m writing this in WordPress’ distraction-free “zen mode” and I’ve been getting into the habit of trying not to idly check my computer or surf the internet when I’m done working for the day. We’re planning on making Saturdays a computer-free day, and I’m starting to take the dog for walks in the morning rather than just taking him outside to poop and then right back in again. Being a parent, it’s probably impossible to expect to live entirely distraction-free, but, as much as possible, I’d like to get my brain back to where it was before the Internet took over the world, before I had a computer, when I wrote with pen and, occasionally, a typewriter.
I like the idea of SlowTech, but I’m afraid that it’s one of those things that will end up as a great idea that never comes to anything, like the program I got to remind me to take a break every xx minutes or xxxx characters typed and do exercises to get up and out of my computer chair. But I’m terrified of a world where 4,000 texts a day is a low number, and the only way to start working on that is with myself. I’d much rather my kids be the smart ones who don’t own a mobile device when they’re 13 than to be the ones you have to poke to get them to look up from their Angry Birds game. And, actually, I’d kind of rather be that person myself, too.