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What’s Wrong With Me (Us?): The Shallows

Why are we so quick to bore, why are we so needful of new input? Why is the need for new information so recognizably similar to the need for a cigarette?

The conclusion that presents itself is unpleasant and simple. Our minds have changed to want more events of this type. “But how did I change my mind, I did no drug, I was not brainwashed.” Ah, but you were. You stood by, beguiled by the story of a lying Greek and didn’t realize that Troy was being sacked of its gold behind your back all the while you stood by, begging for more of the fabulist’s tale.

And humans, being gregarious normative creatures, are accepting that others are patterned this way, are patterning ourselves this way and are joining in the cabal to make the distracted society the norm. But I contend it’s neither making us better or more content.

The other day I was working at my my colleague S.’s desk and watched her face get twisted and contorted by phone calls, emails, IMs and desk visits. In fact watching her read her e-mail killed me because a pop-up popped up as she was in the email application to tell her that more email had arrived. Pair this with more and more IM update blinks and it was enough to make me angry at her for tolerating this. How do you ever feel caught up? How do you ever feel sane?

Where is there time for the quiet mind? And don’t you miss it?

Quo Vadimus?

Where are we going, where can we go? Are we caught in a recursive vice such that we’ll never be able to get out (like Postmodern discourse)?

Am I to delete my Twitter account, delete my Facebook account?

Am I to shut down my IM client and turn off my email program?

I don’t think the answer is an unequivocal “Yes,” but I believe the tools and the methods of interface need to be reevaluated, updated, and where necessary ignored. Certain metaphors (“email”, “feeds”, “push notification”) might need to be drowned so that we don’t drown. Just like “Metropolis'” Moloch Machine, we cannot make the survival of the system a higher good than our own healthy function.

I believe some innovators have adopted rules and heuristics for handling this situation. Consider how Richard Stallman (originator of emacs, one of the primary text editors of choice) “browses the web.”

For personal reasons, I do not browse the web from my computer. (I also have not net connection much of the time.) To look at page I send mail to a demon which runs wget and mails the page back to me. It is very efficient use of my time, but it is slow in real time.

“Slow in real-time…” this might be an important phrase.

Stallman is forcing the “social web” to map to his need of it, not vice versa. No doubt that since he engaged with the web through the portal of “e-mail” in his primitive mail reader (that he wrote) he reads web content not in the cursory ‘scan’ but in a thoughtful, considered fashion.

Also, Stallman clearly doesn’t “surf.” To get a link aggregator site (Facebook, Digg, Reddit), Stallman would have to send several email events to get the updates. As such, he simply can’t be as distracted as those of us who open up an aggregator page and explode out every length. Stallman is mastering a monkey-mind impulse to get more informational drug hits and is sipping a sherry unlike the majority of us who are guzzling dubious grade mental distraction like high schoolers at Señor Frog’s

Another data point is this image:

It strikes me that the difference between important and urgent is being defined and few people are working to do it. T

Conclusion

The net impression that I’m taking away from this book is that we’re a bunch of twitch-moded-next-flashing-light monkeys thanks to constant, ubiquitous, information teases. It’s the same thing that when tied to coins makes a slot machine a profit center. We must make ourselves (again) the masters of the tap. These thoughts were inspired by “The Shallows.” If you would like to explore these ideas further, you might find it a worthwhile read.

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