How not to use the Internet, part 1: it’s a problem that the Internet distracts us

For almost a year, I’ve been at work on a very long essay about some problems with the Internet and social media in particular. I’ve worked on it now and then and occasionally I think I’m really going to finish it—but I never do. So, as a concession to failure, or partial failure anyway, I have decided to divide it up into several self-contained brief essays. I’ll release an essay a day and see how it goes. Here is the first.

Note, rather than tempt the reader to click out of the essay, I’ve moved links to the end, and annotated them. This is an example of one way in which the Internet could change (although I’m not exactly holding my breath).

1. It’s a problem that the Internet distracts us, dammit.

I too am distracted by ubiquitous digital media. This is a problem—a common, serious, and real problem—and I wish I could get to the bottom of it, but it is very deep.

In the last several years, like many of us, I’ve often felt out of control of my time. Following basic time management principles is more difficult than ever, especially when I’m spending time online and looking at screens generally. My situation is probably similar to that of many people reading this: I check my mail many times per day; Twitter and Facebook beckon, as do my favorite online communities (and I dread joining Google+); people push the latest news at me; people Skype me; and the time seems to slip away in spite of my better intentions to, you know, get work done.

What I think of as an unmitigated vice has been complacently described by some as “multi-tasking,” as if allowing yourself to be distracted were some sort of advanced technical ability. We are told (though, I gather, not by most psychologists) that being able to multi-task effectively is one of the skills that should now be in every plugged-in person’s toolkit. But the notion that multi-tasking is an advanced ability is merely an excuse, I think. When you are “multi-tasking,” usually, you are not using your time efficiently; you are simply letting yourself be distracted, because you don’t want to “miss out.”

That’s not all. As much as I hate to admit it, the Internet also seems to have made it difficult for me, as it has Nicholas Carr and Richard Foreman, to write and pay attention to long texts, and to think deep thoughts. To be sure, I still try and occasionally succeed. I seem to skim more along the surface of things, despite myself. Thoughtful insight is far from impossible, but it seems to require more deliberate effort. Creativity still flows, but less often and less spontaneously. Believe me, I wish it weren’t this way. I fear that I, too, am becoming one of Carr’s “shallows” and one of Foreman’s “pancake people.”

Many heavy Internet users have fairly admitted the same, often apparently with pride or without shame—or at least without hope of improvement. Do you feel the same?

The nature of these now-common problems—a mind ironically made poorer in spite of, indeed by, the Internet’s riches—has been much discussed, for example by Maggie Jackson in Distracted, Mark Bauerlein in The Dumbest Generation (a much better book than you might expect from the title), Nicholas Carr in The Shallows, and Jaron Lanier in You Are Not a Gadget.

So why do we let ourselves get so distracted? Why are we so often incapable of sticking to a single task?

I think there is a simple answer, actually: we intensely feel the presence of all the world’s information and people and the digital fun that entails, miraculously made available to us. Impersonal information made it bad enough for us early adopters in the earlier days of the Internet. But now that everybody and his grandma (literally) has joined social networks, the situation got a lot worse, for me at least. We are constantly available to our colleagues, friends, and acquaintances, so they may “interrupt” us at random times throughout the day, offering insights and telling us that some new website or blog post or picture or video is a “must read” or “must see,” or simply reporting their own sometimes-interesting thoughts and news. We constantly feel pulled in a thousand directions. This general problem seems likely to worsen as our access to the world’s information becomes more and more complete, speedy, and convenient. Before long, we will have virtually instant access to every bit of content we might want, always and everywhere, and with a minimum of effort (though not necessarily with a minimum of cost). We are nearly there, too.

This revolution—inadequately described as a revolution of “information” or the “digital” or the “Internet”—is wholly unprecedented in history. Not long ago I had to tell blasé skeptics that it is not “hype” to call it a revolution. But clearly, a lot of regular folks, not necessarily in the vanguard, have started to understand the enormousness of how the world has changed in the last fifteen years or so. It’s a real revolution, not a mere fad or development, and even as we stare it in the face, it is still hard to grasp just how far-reaching it is. We have been swept up by the one of the most novel and dramatic transformations that humanity has ever undergone. We read about “revolutions” throughout history, the printing press, of religion, of ideology, of industry. This is another one; it’s the real deal. It’s more important than, for example, who will be elected president in 2012, whether the Euro will collapse, or Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Anyway, this revolution is so novel that it is not surprising if we act like kids screaming in a candy store, not knowing what to sample first. Maybe it’s time that we started taking stock of the Internet’s candy store more like mature adults and less like sugar-crazed children.

For some time, I’ve known that I would have to come to a personal understanding of this situation, and make some personal resolutions to deal with it. Like so much else, I’ve been putting this off, because the problem is massive and I haven’t felt equal to it. I’m not sure I am yet. Nobody seems to—not even the above writers, who offer bleak reports and little in the way of helpful advice. The Internet bedazzles us. But for me, things have come to a head. I do not want to go through the rest of my life in the now all-too-familiar state of Internet bedazzlement, if I can help it. For me, it begins now. It’s time for me—and maybe, for you too—to get over the fact that all of the world’s information and the people that drive it are (or soon will be) accessible in moments. But how?

Some people won’t admit that there is even a problem in the first place. They celebrate the Internet uncritically, leaping upon every new site, app, or gadget that promises to connect us in newer and deeper ways. But it is precisely the wonders of the Internet that we celebrate that have become a major distraction. Some people don’t seem to want to admit that distractability is a serious problem; they do nothing but offer blithe predictions and analysis of how thinking, social interaction, education, etc., are moving into a wonderful new age. That is all very well as far as it goes, but I sometimes wonder if some of the recent economic downturn might be explained by the amount of time we waste online. Surely it’s possible that the global economy is significantly less productive because we’re distracting ourselves, and each other, so much, and with so little to show for it.

Other people seem to think that there’s nothing that can be done about our distractability and “shallowness.” Whatever their disagreements, Internet commentators Clay Shirky and Nicholas Carr seem to agree on this: the brevity of information chunks, the pace of their flow, and the fact that they are mediated democratically by giant web communities are all inevitable features of the Internet; so we can’t help but be “distracted.” Or so Shirky, Carr, and many techie A-listers seem to think. This is where modern life is lived, for better or worse. If you want to be part of things, you’ve got to jump into the data stream and do your best to manage. If your distractability is making you “shallow” or “flat,” that is just a new and unfortunate feature of life today.

I will not “go gentle into that good night.” I can’t help but observe that this sort of techno-fatalism might be why some Internet geeks are becoming anti-intellectual. I’m far from alone in my view that the overall tendency of the Internet, as it is now and as we use it now, is to make us less intellectual. So, many Internet geeks make a virtue of necessity and begin slagging intellectual things like memory (and thus declarative knowledge), books and especially the classics, expertise, and liberal education. At least critics like Carr and Lanier have the good taste and sense to bemoan the situation rather than mindlessly celebrating it.

As to me, I disagree with techno-fatalism strongly. Isn’t it obvious that the Internet is still very new, that we are still experiencing its birth pangs, and that dramatic changes to how we use it will probably continue for another generation or two? Isn’t it also quite obvious that we have not really figured out how to design and use the Internet in a way that is optimal for us as fully-realized human beings? I love the new universal accessibility of so much recorded knowledge. Over the last dozen years I have been a booster of this myself, and in my work I still aim to enlarge our store of free, high-quality knowledge resources. I also deeply love the free exchange of ideas that the Internet makes possible. These things are why I “live online” myself. I do agree with the boosters that all this will, in time, probably, change us for the better. But the idea that the mindless digital helter-skelter of the early 2000s is how things will always be, from here on out, is highly doubtful.

We simply can’t go on like this. I think we can change, and we should.

Part 2: the pernicious design philosophy of the Internet >>

Relevant links

A good place to start learning about what psychologists say about Internet distraction would be via this search.

Nicholas Carr’s famous essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in The Atlantic, is one of those articles you kind of wish you’d written. It focused many people’s thinking about the effect of the Internet on how we think. I actually prefer his book The Shallows, however.

The “pancake people” reference is to a short essay by Richard Foresman in Edge.

For some of what I’ve said about the “revolution” that the Internet and digital media represent, see thisthis, and this, just for example.

When I think about the suggestion that it’s not a bad thing that information chunks are getting smaller, I think of this Britannica Blog post by Clay Shirky, lauding short-form online communication as an “upstart literature” that will “become the new high culture.” Perhaps an older, more widely-read introduction to this notion would be Small Pieces, Loosely Joined by David Weinberger–it’s just that the pieces are even smaller and looser than when Weinberger published that book (2002).

“Go gentle into that good night” is, of course, a phrase from the poem “Invictus.”

The surely absurd notion that there is a new geek anti-intellectualism is broached in this much-discussed essay.

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About the author

Larry Sanger had written 160 articles for Larry Sanger Blog

I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.

12 Responses to "How not to use the Internet, part 1: it’s a problem that the Internet distracts us"
  1. Reply Seth Finkelstein April 21, 2012 18:34 pm

    Briefly – I disagree greatly with Nick Carr here, e.g. see my short response blog post at the time.

    “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, and Man vs. Machine
    http://sethf.com/infothought/blog/archives/001349.html

    Also, there’s two different effects which are difficult to discuss:

    1) When you become middle-aged, there ARE cognitive changes that happen. I think there’s a bunch of people who are basically saying “10 years-15 years has passed, and I’m not as agile as I was earlier – It must be THE INTERNET, that scary technology which is sapping my precious vitality, like the demon spawn which is all modernity – oh, woe is us, what’s the matter with kids today, the world is going to hell in a handbasket from these infernal devices.” But part of it is just the ravages of time.

    2) Economically, people are being told they have to run even faster to stay in the same place. Real wages stagnating, job security destroyed. There’s simply MORE WORK, and worse, the fear of even more work beyond what’s required. But talk about that, and the human costs, and you’ll be called a liberal (if not a socialist, or a communist). It’s simply safer for a pundit to rail on about “THAT DARN INTERNET, the destroyer of free time via distraction …”. Because such polemics don’t lead to union organizing or abolishing tax cuts for the 1% super-rich.

    • Reply Larry Sanger April 21, 2012 18:58 pm

      And you leave it to me to infer what bearing (1) and (2) have for my post, I see. 🙂

      • Reply Seth Finkelstein April 21, 2012 19:22 pm

        left as an exercise for the (attentive, focused) reader 🙂

        • Reply Larry Sanger April 21, 2012 21:22 pm

          heh heh

          Age (not just weakness of flesh, but also responsibilities piled high, and frequent sleep deprivation) weakens the mind in many ways, no doubt about it. But when it is the Internet that I can plainly observe distracting me, at least to that extent the problem is not merely a problem of age. If I am constantly taking in ephemeral and mostly short-form communication, that will at the very least leave me unpracticed, or less practiced, in hard thinking and focus.

          The idea that the problems I’ve discussed in the essay are the result of our being overworked–well, that sounds plausible. But I didn’t say there was only one cause of distractability.

          Are you really wanting to deny that the Internet is a tremendous distraction? Isn’t it pretty obvious, Seth?

          • Seth Finkelstein April 22, 2012 13:33 pm

            More seriously – “deny that the Internet is a tremendous distraction?” – of course not. But the analysis tends to get back-fitted to the acceptable solution. That is

            1) Is it that there’s amazing amounts of news and entertainment at one’s fingertips? That is a good problem in a way. Is the response then moralizing about discipline?

            2) Is it that the Internet is a kind of literal, physical, neurotoxin, akin to flashing lights setting off epilepsy? (and some of the writing in this genre comes very, very close to claiming that – maybe not so bluntly, but there’s much implication in that vein). The response is then of course to do what the humanities types consider the only proper practice for a fit mind, which certainly cannot include anything later than when they grew up (some of them have a hard time with anything later than ancient Greece).

            3) Is is that there’s too much work in too little time? Then union organizing, job security, etc. are potential solutions.

            Case study: A while back, I got a huge amount of flack for my column calling Twitter a sucker’s game, and that I did not want to do the whole social-media rat-race again. Some responses were extremely nasty, like I was somehow unpatriotic. I still get pressure against my mostly abstaining stance. Why? Is it news/entertainment? There’s some of that, and I certainly feel it. Is the 140-character process neurotoxic? I’d call that scaremongering. It’s mainly about relative positioning and competition. The idea that I somehow must play this sucker’s game, OR ELSE I’m a bad person, or bad things will happen to me in terms of career/status, is tied into a lot of economics and structure that has little to do with the technology of messaging.

  2. Reply Larry Sanger Blog » How not to use the Internet, part 2: the pernicious design philosophy of the Internet April 21, 2012 20:57 pm

    […] How not to use the Internet, part 2: the pernicious design philosophy of the Internet Print PDF << Part 1, It’s a <i>problem</i> that the Internet distracts us […]

  3. Reply Larry Sanger Blog: Comment ne pas se servir d’Internet, 1. la distraction est un problème « mrg | lettrure(s) April 22, 2012 04:18 am

    […] Larry Sanger Blog » How not to use the Internet, part 1: it’s a problem that the Internet distrac…. Larry Sanger Blog » How not to use the Internet, part 1: it’s a problem that the Internet […]

  4. Reply carl gombrich April 22, 2012 16:19 pm

    Stimulating post. Much one could respond to, but I will try to focus my reply. I have not read Carr or Bauerlein, so forgive me if some of these points are addressed there.

    1. I agree with you that we are at the beginning of a revolution – a unique and historic revolution for mankind. The way revolutions turn out in the end is very hard to call but, broadly (!), one could say that the mass publication of books led to the schism of the Christian church (and the decline in its power), capitalism, industrial revolutions and modern Western forms of democracy. Just your basic fundamental historical shifts, then. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the explosion of the web may lead to similar unimaginable shifts which we simply have no way of predicting at this point. It is also possible (even likely) that such changes will happen much faster than previous revolutions in knowledge because of the greater connectivity and speed of communication. Given the tenor of your post, however, I think it worth pointing out that by and large the changes (brought about by books) were Good Things. I think one can argue that the democratisation of knowledge is intrinsically a Good Thing even if those who benefit from pre-revolutionary arrangements (the Medieval Church, next: modern universities? ; corporations?) are naturally perturbed about such changes.

    From early on – and at repeated intervals – there have been those who have been grumpy or worried about the amount of published material and the impossibility ever more of producing a man of ‘universal learning’. I believe the early encyclopaedists were motivated to try to arrange all knowledge in an accessible form because they felt the tide had become overwhelming (and there are earlier examples). Maybe you know more about this than I do? I am not particularly bothered if one person can only know 1 thousandth of all there is to know, or 1 trillionth. I don’t see how this difference can meaningfully impact on an indvidual or on society.

    2. But to your main point of distraction. I am less gloomy than you. As someone who has recently got teched up – and only in middle age – I now spend a great deal of time on the web, using Twitter, writing blogs, discussing knowledge, technology, interdisciplinarity etc and I am often distracted – but only by material relevant to what I do. I certainly now read more than I ever have before. I don’t get Facebook and I’m not much interested in music videos or gaming, so the ‘distractions’ are, more or less, all relevant and stimulating. I love academic hypertext links (indeed, I wish more books were written in this way – it seems to correspond better to the way the brain makes connections) and it feels at last as if intellectuals are free to wander in the infinite library at their leisure. I do not think I am that unusual (indeed, I know some other people like me!) and so believe that many of us interested in ideas and learning are using and will continue to use the internet mostly for these purposes; we will simply let a lot of the other stuff pass by. With reference to distractions, isn’t this the way intellectuals have always operated – whether it was avoiding the theatre or pubs in the past, or FB or YouTube now?

    3. When it comes to profound thoughts and ideas of ‘progress’ in knowledge, things get interesting. I take your point that the sort of deep study that allowed, say, Andrew Wiles 7 years of concentrated, solitary work to crack Fermat’s theorem, appears to be harder and harder to achieve. This may be sad from the ‘intellectual heroes’ point of view. What we simply do not know, however, is whether the sorts of massively collaborative projects that are now arising in maths, science and elsewhere will lead to significant breakthroughs of a similar calibre and historic importance. I have to say I am optimistic, though. It is not hard to imagine that the best scientists and mathematicians of the next generations will use the knowledge of others in collaborative projects to accelerate their learning (think: correspondences of Bohr-Einstein or virtually any other intellectual correspondence, but on a massive scale) and therefore arrive at the cutting edge of their area of knowledge quicker and with more fire-power to tackle the hard problems.

    In the humanities things may be a bit different but I think Shirky is just wrong when he says nobody reads War and Peace and it isn’t that interesting. We should really get some figures, but I wouldn’t mind betting that War and Peace sells more copies with every passing year (China, India, Africa etc!). When knowledge is democratised there will always be a large body of people who opt for less high culture, but the high-end will grow in number, too, if not in percentage. The humanities, as I see them, reflect human experience and I can make no sense of the idea that worthwhile contributions to this project are going away any time soon.

    This post is already too long, but 2 final points.

    4. The future economics of the knowlege revolution is completely unknown at this point (did Gutenberg predict crowdfunding or credit default swaps?)but I see no plausible connection between the current economic malaise in the West and people spending more time plugged-in. There are larger forces at play than this: failure of banking, resources issues etc.

    5. (A bit of a curve ball) As an antidote to this futuristic talk, I like to recall that there are those – mainly on the left and of green tendencies – that are laughing at these sorts of conversations. We mustn’t forget that all current models of the technology boom are energy-hungry and unless we can meet the energy needs of such a vision, our future may be much more low-tech than some of us dream of.

    Right – off to bed. Look forward to posts 3,4 and 5.

    • Reply Larry Sanger April 23, 2012 20:43 pm

      Carl, you give me a lot to respond to yourself!

      1. If I didn’t agree with you about the overall net positive effect of the Internet revolution, or whatever it should be called, I wouldn’t be part of it. To be opposed to the way the Internet has shaped up, post-Web 2.0 and in the era of “social media,” is not to be opposed to the Internet and its future. It doesn’t bother me either that there is “too much to read” online. But what we should do about our wealth of opportunities…that’s the big question.

      2. If you find your distractions relevant and worthwhile, they aren’t really “distractions,” and more power to you. But that’s not a common experience. More and more we feel ourselves–or I feel myself, and many other people report the same of themselves–vaguely beholden to impersonal algorithms, out of control of our own attention. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.

      3. I agree with you that there is potential for very interesting new kinds of scholarship owing to new ways studying (in general) together online. But this is orthogonal to the idea that the endless pressure to check this and that scatters our attention and makes it more difficult to think deep thoughts.

      4. I just come across any analysis from an economist, or some other person who knows what the heck he’s talking about, about how much Internet distraction might be affecting productivity. Of course, to some extent it might even increase productivity, meaning it’s not entirely a waste of time, but on balance it looks to me like it is. How could that not have some economic impact? The question is how big the impact is.

      5. Er, well, the only reason to worry about that, I think, is the potential of massive economic collapse, which makes many things discussed on the Internet moot. 🙂

  5. Reply Greg Linster April 24, 2012 23:18 pm

    Nice essay, Larry. Did you ever read Paul Graham’s essay called “The Acceleration of Addictiveness”? If not, I think you would enjoy it (at least parts of it).

    Anyway, I think we all individually have to figure out ways to cope with the problems you’re talking about. The best practical strategy I’ve come up with is to schedule not only daily time away from the Internet, but also several day blocks of time away from it (e.g., one weekend a month off it).

    Also, I refuse to get a smart phone because I know that have access to the Internet all the time would spell trouble for me. This also pertains to the main reason that I still read actual physical books, i.e., I get tired of the screen reading.

    I’m curious to hear what your practical strategies are, but perhaps you reveal them in the later essays I’ve yet to read.

  6. Reply PokerDad April 25, 2012 17:29 pm

    I look forward to reading the rest of your essay. I can attest to the reduction of productivity, but can also tell you that when applied thoughtfully, it’s increased my productivity immensely. The economy is something that I know quite a bit about, and while I can certainly cede that there is probably an economic loss due to waste, I will also posit that it’s a relatively small loss compared to some fairly massive variables (that continue and are not abating).

    Thus far in the essay, you have yet to discuss a root of the matter which is the commercialization of the internet. Of course, it figures that enterprise would serve as the cynosure taking the ancillary positives along for the ride. This seems to be the model for all the worthy endeavors.

    I’ll leave you with a final thought which requires no response. If the internet is fraught with the dumbing down of the populace, then how shall we interpret the state of other multi-media such as the television? I find the TV is almost unbearable in its current state.

  7. Reply Irene Lynch April 28, 2012 20:01 pm

    Let’s hear from non-geeks. From the oldies-bit-goodies.

    A challenge: accept a free pass to your old starter: Wikimania 2012. Live a little.

    Radicalspirit

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