Online reading is different than experience than reading a book.
For one, the digital experience is stickier because of its dopamine-hitting bells and whistles. We are constantly shifting between articles, apps, and text messages, hijacked by the latest gaze of entertainment. It’s the equivalent of flipping TV channels.
“Online life makes me into a different kind of reader – a cynical one. I scrounge, now, for the useful fact; I zero in on the shareable link. My attention – and thus my experience – fractures. Online reading is about clicks, and comments, and points. When I take that mindset and try to apply it to a beaten-up paperback, my mind bucks.”
Since physical books lack the immediate stimuli, reading requires an entirely different mindset. It enforces focus and patience. Said Harris: “I do think old, book-oriented styles of reading opened the world to me – by closing it. And new, screen-oriented styles of reading seem to have the opposite effect: They close the world to me, by opening it.”
Screens are for short-term readers; book heads play the long-game. The latter know that great moments in novels are as scarce a goal in a soccer game, but they can also be more exciting.
Books test our attentiveness while creating anticipation. Perhaps they are the only escape we have left from our distracted world. Constricted to one tangible novel of a screen, a paperback can help recalibrate the imagination and slow down time.
Facebook is a video game for adults. The social network specializes in goading emotional responses that dupe the older crowd into thinking they are legitimate purveyors of news.
The reality is imperfect. Technology companies compel people to spread misinformation that emboldens preexisting echo chambers. A post-fact society threatens the plurality of opinion so fundamental to healthy democracies.
Overheard someone say 'Facebook did to your parents what they worried violent video games would do to you' earlier this week and haven't stopped thinking about it.
Screen staring and the rapid spread of information distort what’s real and what’s false. Unfortunately, it is the networks that benefit most from the gray space in the middle.
Facebook is a weapon of mass propaganda, a platform where conspiracy theories thrive. We should be giving our parents the same lecture they gave us on video games but about their manipulative online use.
“In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.”
In a 1999 interview with the BBC, David Bowie foresaw the internet’s impact on music and society. The walls between artist and fan would be broken down, but the era of echo chambers and fake news would break internet culture itself.
“We are living in total fragmentation…I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg. I think the potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.
Is there life on Mars? Yes, it’s just landed here. I’m talking about the actual context and the state of content is going to be so different from anything we can envisage at the moment. With the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in sympatico it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.”
Screens are contagious. If we see one person look at their phone, we emulate them like we do catching someone yawn.
But the addiction is not totally our fault. With the vibrant colors of apps, the dopamine of Facebook likes and news alerts, on top of serving as a consolidated utility of our camera, wallet, and communications device, our phones are designed to hook us.
It’s amazing that in this post-internet world of surfeit information and 24/7 conversation we can even concentrate at all. We’ve numbed our thumbs from excessive use.
We’ve lost the signal to those little gaps of solitude and doing nothing where we reaped the benefits of a wandering imagination.
Can we get our bored minds back?
There are plenty of options other than riding the Facebook or Google monopoly on our attention. For as many tricks these companies play us, there as many tips to get away from them: turning our screen gray, just sitting and staring outside the window, and at the most extreme: throwing our phone into the ocean.
We can only harvest quality attention if we can escape the torment of distraction and external stimuli fighting for the inside of our heads. The world around us already creates a theater inside our head. We see the world once, with an intrinsic pair of eyes, with no need to record the outside world with a third eye.
“Attention is a form of prayer,” wrote French philosopher Simone Weil. We should insist on slowing down if we’re to restrengthen the human will.
Said filmmaker Orson Welles in 1956: “I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can’t stop eating peanuts.”
We’re at a crossroads with the internet: How can something be so good but bad for us at the same time?
Part of the problem is that we use computers and phones for everything. We depend on technology to act as our wallet, camera, work, and entertainment device. Everything converges into the smartphone, yet we use it less to talk and more to navigate our everyday lives.
The addictive trills of the rectangular glow are just beginning. Tech promises to become more pervasive. From driving cars to learning languages, we will offload all our work into the unconscious but competent machines. AI portends to obviate human labor.
So what are we to do once the robots do it all for us? The line between productivity and doing nothing will blur. Some of us will entertain ourselves into inanition; others will work with automation to keep developing the future.
Either way, we are compelled to become the Jetsons. As long as we stay interested, we can keep the wave of the future interesting.
It’s hard enough to cultivate awareness. We drown in our own ineptitude to sort and curate the noise. Spiralling out of control, we gravitate to the bite-sized headline.
Lacking interest in context, we are too impatient to go deeper. Like fast food, we consume information and move on, having forgotten what crap we engulfed.
The internet can make your brain swell so big that it squeezes out the need for interpretation. Nothing sticks nor lasts longer than a Twitter trend. Consuming less and understanding more seems to be the only antidote.
A return to trusted sources
In a time of chaos, those that provide structure and synthesis re-emerge. Trusted publications like The New York Times or Wall Street Journal become bulwarks of fact-checked news where we can believe what we read. Meanwhile, confidence in social media sources is sinking.
We can’t call ‘fake news’ to everything we disagree with. Such criticism undermines the credibility of opposing viewpoints that help weed out bias. Curation is still human and analytical; beware the bots.
Good things take time. If we all settled for immediate results, there would be no Apple, Amazon, or Tesla.
The world’s best leaders are visionaries. They work years ahead, having planted the seeds for what’s happening now to springboard them into the future.
When asked what he thinks when analysts congratulate him on a good quarter, Jeff Bezos said:
“Those quarterly results were fully baked three years ago. Today I’m working on a quarter that will happen in 2020, not next quarter. Next quarter is done already and it’s probably been done for a couple years…If we have a good quarter it’s because of work we did 3, 4, 5 years ago. It’s not because we did a good job this quarter.”
The exhibitionist plays her role and lives up to the internet’s stage of expectations. Like robots, we feign surprise at the latest occurrence of routine deja vu.
We walk into our own cameras to take selfies while we move on camera recorded from CCTV above. Even the faintest nook can’t escape the ubiquitous photograph. The invisible fence amplifies a sea of caginess.
Inspection is self-inflicted
Says director Gus Hosein of Privacy International: “if the police wanted to know what was in your head in the 1800s, they would have to torture you. Now they can just find it out from your devices.”
The maw of Orwellian watchability is here, in our pockets and from above. The cameras render us into thoughtless lemmings of time.
Lifeguards deployed a drone to save two struggling teenage swimmers stranded in rough seas off the coast of Australia.
This is apparently the first time drone technology carrying a flotation device has rescued swimmers.
While drones are commonly known for selfies (i.e. dronies), Amazon deliveries, firing missiles, and spying but they can also do some good too. The company behind the technology, Little Ripper, developed the drones to monitor sharks for coastal safety.
The drone also recorded the entire event which you can see below.
Two teenage swimmers were rescued from a riptide when a drone deployed a life raft in what local officials called a "world first." pic.twitter.com/o8ICqJ65r6
That’s how subtleties move along, transparent, through the chaos of abundant information for which the likes of Facebook and Twitter sell our eyeballs to the attention merchants.
As John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing, “seeing comes before words.” Images overpower our digital world. Video maximizes these stitched images. People lose interest in thinking by themselves and using their imagination.
Said color photography pioneer William Eggleston: “Words and pictures don’t — they’re like two different animals. They don’t particularly like each other.”
Showing speaks louder than telling. One can intuit a concept quicker with a visual cue more so than a verbalized one.
The variety of colors on our smartphone screens pop like candy. As advertiser Bruce Barton wrote in his 1925 book In The Man Nobody Knows, “The brilliant plumage of the bird is color advertising addressed to the emotions.”
We tap into Instagram, scroll through a few photos, and return to the home screen to bounce off to other apps. And then we repeat the process again in a mindless fashion.
After a while, we start to lose all conscious brain power. We fly between apps like we’re hitting buttons at the casino. The variable rewards keep us spinning in a ludic loop. Technology undermines our attention by bombarding our senses with a surfeit of stimuli that lights up like a Christmas tree.
How can we win back our focus in the distraction era?
Turn it gray. That’s right: we need to dull our screens to bore our senses. Turning the phone grayscale doesn’t make it dumb, it just makes it less attractive. Writes Nellie Bowles in the New York Times:
I’m not a different person all of a sudden, but I feel more in control of my phone, which now looks like a tool rather than a toy. If I unlock it to write an email, I’m a little less likely to forget the goal and tap on Instagram. If I’m waiting in line for coffee, this gray slab is not as delightful a distraction as it once was.