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Blog // Thoughts
December 17, 2010

Responding To The Distraction Economy

The recent essay on social media, distraction and unhappiness (Is Facebook Making Us Stupid?) attracted some thoughtful comments and a few challenging emails. Therefore, it made sense to write a follow-up post, covering some of the points my interlocutors brought up. Don’t Fear The Technology Before going on, let me say that I’m not a […]

The recent essay on social media, distraction and unhappiness (Is Facebook Making Us Stupid?) attracted some thoughtful comments and a few challenging emails. Therefore, it made sense to write a follow-up post, covering some of the points my interlocutors brought up.

Don’t Fear The Technology

Before going on, let me say that I’m not a luddite, nor am I fearful of digital technology. Yes, I love paper and subscribe to a number of magazines, but I consume most of my news online and have no longing to go back to the pre-internet days.

In both music and photography, I’m a digital artist. Sometimes I use old music technology like tubes, germanium transistors and ribbon microphones. But, my workflow is thoroughly digital. And, I’m convinced that I was able to go so far, so quickly, in photography because I was working in the digital medium.

Moreover, I’ve benefitted from fantastic online distance education through BerkleeMusic. Social media have helped deepen and develop mentoring, collegial and professional relationships that are improving my craft. Moreover, my participation in social platforms has helped me expand my music business and attract work. So, I’m not surprised when evidence arises social media can influence and support things like creative writing (link via Tensegrities).

Therefore, I’m not surprised to read that academics are using digital technology to further research, as Patricia Cohen writes in Digital Keys for Unlocking Humanities’ Riches. Most of my first website designs, back in 96-97 were based on academic sites and my inspiration for starting a blog over nine years ago came from academic bloggers. In fact my experience of academia confirmed that researchers are often willing early adopters of technology whether that means better communication tools, smarter ways to edit documents, or more fully featured programmes for data and statistical analysis.

The Engines Of Distraction

The question is not whether these technologies can help us do our work better – I’m convinced they can. Rather, I’m concerned with how they, increasingly, acting as engines of distraction, getting in the way of work and maybe even breeding patterns of social interaction that are harmful in the long run. We need to consider the stress and pressure social media can bring into our lives. Have we really learnt to account for time it takes to perform well on all these platforms?

Seth Godin, for example, does not use every social media outlet available, because as he says,

“…I don’t want to use a tool unless I’m going to use it really well. Doing any of these things halfway is worse than not at all. People don’t want a mediocre interaction.”

Some techno-optimists like to claim that we will soon adapt to this new technology and that kids, as so-called “digital natives” will lead the way. However, there is mounting evidence that kids are not coping any better than adults with social media and, in fact, are frequently drowning in a flood of distraction. In Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction, Matt Richtel writes,

“Several teachers call Vishal one of their brightest students, and they wonder why things are not adding up. Last semester, his grade point average was 2.3 after a D-plus in English and an F in Algebra II. He got an A in film critique.

“He’s a kid caught between two worlds,” said Mr. Reilly — one that is virtual and one with real-life demands.”

The Importance Of Pattern Recognition

When it comes to our mind’s ability to adapt to complex demands, techno-optimists often miss the role of pattern-recognition. Studies have shown that Chess masters are far more adept than ordinary people at remembering the location of pieces on a board (when shown it for a fleeting moment), so long as those locations correspond to positions that are possible in an actual game of chess.

The same thing holds for great jazz improvisors. All too often people assume that these musicians are plucking notes out of the ether, when in fact they are working (artistically) through an established repertoire (more akin to what a martial arts fighter does). This animation of John Coltrane’s majestic tune, Giant Steps, demonstrates the way a piece that might sound random, to the untrained ear, actually follows a rigid structure and spells out a (predictable) chord pattern.

Of course, we don’t gain kind of pattern mastery, in chess or jazz doesn’t from plugging into every possible thought out in society. We only get there by making hard choices about where to put our attention.

“Most info-Web-media-newspaper types have a hard time swallowing the idea that knowledge is reached (mostly) by removing junk from people’s heads.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Even if we can adapt to this new media, do we want to become the kind of people who live constantly checking devices? Do we enjoy it when people around us can’t manage to give us their undivided attention? Or, what about when text-walkers crash into us on the footpath?

I’m in debt to Wess at Gathering In Light for putting into words something I’ve been struggling to articulate.

“I am realising more and more that the kinds of practices constitutive of good online citizenship are not the kinds of practices that are constitutive of good earthy citizenship. In my real-life I do not have 1,300 friends, I do not have to manage multiple identities, accounts, threads in the same way that social media requires. My earthy citizenship demands that the person or task in front of me be the one thing I focus on, my online citizenship requires the ability to be multiply present in many spaces. In real life to be untethered from a place, a tradition, a community, is to call ones own identity into question, but it is a necessary feature of online citizenship.”

To borrow a theological term, social media has its own kind of eschatology, its own mode of transcendence, its own kind of utopia. It is hard to deny that the notion of “social” in social media is becoming more and more ideologically laden. Consider the following quote, from David Gelles’ Financial Times piece, Facebook’s Grand Plan for the Future.

“Zuckerberg uses the word “social” a lot, and it’s not always obvious what he means. He is not simply talking about telling your friends what you had for breakfast with a status update. To Zuckerberg, a more social world is one where nearly everything – from the web to the TV to the restaurants you choose to eat at – is informed by your stated preferences and your friends’ preferences, and equipped with technology that lets you communicate and share content with people you know. What Zuckerberg is talking about is a new way of organising and navigating information.”

Social Media Is Changing Our Reality

In fact, this idea of social is about more than just organising and navigating information, it is about managing our relationship with reality. The concept of what it means to be social (and related ideas like culture and community) matter because they address the core of what it means to be human. Or, more specifically, what should happen when we put humans together.

Behind every one of these social media platforms is an idea, about humanity and how humans flourish together. Some of these are good ideas, some are pernicious. Whatever the arguments we put in favour of them (or against them) will ultimately come back what kind of person we are trying to be and the hopes and dreams we have for those around us.

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