by Dan Jordan
Don’t be turned off by the terrible click-bait headline. This article is worth a read for anyone who finds themselves spending an ever-increasing amount of time online, particularly on social media sites.
Hand-wringing about the effects of technology is nothing new. (In fact it is quite old.) That is not a bad thing. In fact, these days it is probably necessary. The pace of technological change is so stunning that the world has never seen anything like it. Fifty years ago there were no personal computers. Now most of us have a personal computer that we keep in our pocket that is far more powerful than PCs from a mere decade ago.
Such rapid technological change must affect us, and probably in fundamental ways. The question is what these effects may be. One that I have experienced myself, and one that this article discusses, is an increasing tendency towards distraction and more difficulty staying focused.
I love Reddit (that is, I love the subreddits that I subscribe to. If you see anything from r/AdviceAnimals when you sign on, you’re using Reddit wrong) but it definitely feeds this tendency. Click, scan, click, scan, click, scan. Only rarely do I find an article that I feel is worth my time to read, and even then I probably won’t finish reading it.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing that I have a tendency to skim articles online. Oftentimes a quick scan through the headlines is enough to tell you what is going on in the world. This was true in the era of newspapers too. The problem arises when something comes across your screen that is worth spending time with. Something that is worth reading slowly and pondering. The internet is a terrible medium for this.
I am not the first person to notice this, of course, and fortunately smart people have begun to come up with solutions. One I really like is a plug-in I use for Chrome called Clearly. It cleans up web pages so that you are not constantly distracted by the other articles you could be reading on the side of the page. It is clean and makes the page look like a book.
Even with Clearly, I find myself checking Reddit or Facebook or Twitter mid-article. It’s almost a compulsion. When I notice I am doing this I try to stop, but oftentimes I don’t even notice I am doing it until I have read seven of the thirteen comments on a status a friend of a friend posted on Facebook about something that I in no way care about.
For me the real solution is to do my actual reading and thinking away from a computer. This also includes tablets – though the form factor is better suited for reading than a PC’s, the ease of switching from the Kindle app to the very best Reddit app makes it too tempting to distract myself with internet pablum when I’m using my iPad.
Fortunately more websites are letting you send articles to your e-reader. (I highly recommend Aeon magazine.) My Kindle is a godsend. I have a plain ol’ Kindle. No color, no video, and a terrible web browser. It is good for one thing and one thing only: reading. It’s true that I can still pick up my phone and dick around online, but doing so is a step removed from the task at hand. Rather than switching from app to app within a device, I have to actually switch devices. And though on paper this doesn’t sound like much, in practice it is the difference between reading for a solid hour and reading in five minute increments in between checking to see who is depressed on Facebook today.
The ultimate solution is as always self control. If you have good self control, you’ll be able to resist the urge to seek constant stimulation online. But for those of us who struggle to exercise self control, it is always a good idea to have a few tips and tricks to help yourself when your willpower is off for the day.
It will be interesting to see where this all leads. To a generation raised in an era when smartphones are the default, all this worrying will probably end up sounding silly. But until then, I still find great value in spending time to sit down and do some actual reading and thinking and I can’t seem to do it when the internet is always clamoring for my attention. I’ll deal with that for now and then we’ll see how it all shakes out down the road.