Log on, check in, tweet out. The gospel of the new digital always-on lifestyle is most loudly cheered by knowledge workers that make a living as (digital) communication consultants or speakers. The theoretical upsides of easy access to information, knowledge and human connections are indeed marvelous. The theoretical downsides, however, tell about mass digital attention deficit disorders and a volatility in culture and society that is less than comfortable for the new losers. The social web version of Timothy Leary´s old mantra calls for some sound scepticism. And just like in those days, beware: once you pop, your brains reward system doesn´t want you to stop.
The obvious fact that the social web is to most part filled with and accessed for distraction from boredom, lack of connection or both, is readily forgiven from a humanistic perspective. Wasn´t that what the Cluetrain Manifesto was all about, after all? Goofing around and having a laugh (and maybe help brand marketers crash the party a little on the side – you´ve got to live don´t you?).
The thing is, as Swedish web advisor Joakim Jardenberg pointed out in a swedish presentation on Webbdagarna, that the social web delivers very well on our basic human needs. It provides us with a perfect feedback loop that keeps more and more people coming back to the social stimulus machine for another fix. And that´s where the catch is.
It´s the technology, stupid!
Marshall McLuhan pointed out that it´s not so much the content of our media that´s what affecting us the most. It´s the medium itself. This always-on, always-in touch, always-updated tech-driven lifestyle effects our abilities to focus, think and even relate. A lucky few masters the art and become free and well-off netocrats. Most, of course, play the role of the consumtariat. What McLuhan noted applies equally to all classes however. He saw that electronic media, from telegraph to his vision of what is today the Internet, was really technological extensions of our brains and that the use of this technology deeply affects our organism. I believe the rather crude electronic technologies of TV, telephone and the desktop computer screen made us believe that the technology was really just extensions of our eyes and ears. Immersing yourself into the social web using wearable computers, however, soon gives you a feel for what he was really talking about. It´s actually our brains we´re playing with.
According to former Google CEO Eric Schmidt humanity now produces as much information in three days as we did since the dawn of history up until the 21st century. The quote is disputable, but not the fact that telephones, email and social media are creating an explosion of data right now. As Clay Shirky noted: the problem isn´t really information overload, but filter failure. The problem is not that we netizens are bombarded with more and more information from friends, colleagues and strangers from companies that aims for our attention in order to make a sale.
Technology is hard – humans are soft
The problem is our innate capability to mentally filter out the distractions from the helpful and the absence of effective tools to help us out with that. Signs that our human filtering capabilities are failing are obvious to anyone that work in an office or try to catch the attention of kids in school class rooms. Research show that the plasticity of our brains makes us deeply affected of the habits we form. The young ones that grow up with smartphones will form different pathways in their minds than the older generations that learn the digital lifestyle on top of an older, more analogue lifestyle. The difference, I believe, lies in two fundamental approaches to life and the surrounding world: the speed in which we operate and the shift from self-definition by social processes (family, church, organisations) toward self as an esthetic projection. In the connected world quantity inevitably kills quality. Internet provides us with an illusion that distance and time (especially in meetings with others) doesn´t matter. It does.
I used to be a guy that spent a lot of time reading long books that required holding a chain of thought going over a long time. Some ten years ago I spent more and more time online. I started blogging five years ago which taught me a new way of thinking and writing in day to day chunks. Then came Jaiku and now Twitter. I´ve noticed that I blog more seldom in favor of tweeting or posting status updates on Facebook. Observing myself from the inside I´d say that I´ve gone from long-thinking, over chunk-thinking to micro-thinking. My capacity to hold a thought long enough to research into it and come to a well thought-out conclusion seems to have gone away to large extents.
When I write this I realize that I´ve just rewritten Nicholas Carr´s words, his personal experience which he claims made him write the book The Shallows – what the Internet is doing with our brains. If you can´t muster the concentration to read a whole book – the documentary below by Douglas Rushkoff requires only 86 minutes of your attention and tells just about the same story: our brains are not coping very well with the technological (r)evolution.
So what can we do about it?
Well, we can try following Rushkoff´s ten commandments for the digital age, especially number one:
- Time: Thou shalt not always be on.
- Distance – Thou shalt not do from a distance what can be done face to face.
- Scale – Exalt the particular (resist the temptation to ‘scale-up’).
- Discreet – Thou may’st always choose none of the above.
- Complexity – Thou shalt not always be right.
- Corporeal – Thou shalt not be anonymous.
- Contact – Thou shalt remember the humans.
- Abstraction – As above not so below.
- Openness – Thou shalt not steal
- End Users – Programme or be programmed
and we can relieve our brains from a lot of tension by implementing and practicing the GTD method. But I think it will be a lot worse before it get´s any better, unfortunately.