Unplugging from the Tendrils of Technology
Today is a working from home day. Like most days. I stare out my window as the sun pokes a hole through the sodden cloud cover sheets. The sunny illusion wears thin as the ripples of wind form mini green Mexican waves on the grass, and the house rumbles in anticipation before the heavy gales arrive later in the day. The toys and balls formerly strewn around the garden make their way back to their winter homes, lest they be exposed to the elements. Tucked up safe in their box, I head back indoors and set myself one main task, before I attend to the ever-growing panoply of sub-tasks that make up my day.
And yet, I can’t help but feel my attention divided, my thoughts conflicted, my focus blunted. So many things to think about, so many distractions jostling for my attention. Whether it’s my phone, my emails, my empty stomach, or my mind thinking about the latest tv show I’ve watched (I’ve become rather obsessed with The Last of Us since the first episode dropped) —it’s easy to let hours run out before accomplishing anything of substance. It’s easy to let life pass us by with the intrusive sounds, vibrations and alerts re-ordering our understanding of time; and messing with our ability to commit to the deep work required of us.
But it also messes with our ability to give other people the interactions and attention they deserve, and which we ourselves need. Our relationships and fullness of life can become diminished,
Journalist and Author Johann Hari, felt this familiar sensation—that he was letting life pass him by—thanks to modern life and technology crowding out our ability to stay in the moment. So often our experiences are being increasingly facilitated by our smartphones and social media accounts. What’s behind these irresistible forces that make prolonged periods of concentration both rare and precious?
Well in his book Stolen Focus: Why you can’t pay attention, Hari embarks on a trip to reclaim his mind, and understand the factors and hidden structures that are working against our ability to focus. And there are many. He lists twelve causes that are conspiring against our attention span day by day. And so, being aware of some of them might help us re-think the way we engage with technology and social media.
The first cause is the increase in speed, switching and filtering – As technology gets faster and more impressive we consistently favour shorter forms of processing information—particularly as it has become so accessible and overwhelming. For example, articles generally replace books. Twitter and social media replaces blogs. News notifications replace dedicated times to watch the local news.
Life has accelerated, but our ability to keep up hasn’t. Despite people knowing that multi-tasking is a myth, we still set up our working and family lives as if we can do multiple things at once. We can’t. Our brain switches between tasks fairly seamlessly in our experience, but the ‘switch-cost effect’ is real, resulting in performance drops, and lost time refocusing on the thing we were initially doing. For every 4 hours mindlessly spent ‘multi-tasking’ on our phone, we’re losing much more than that trying to recalibrate ourselves for the other task we’re supposedly doing. We also make a lot more mistakes, and remember way less. Not a good trade if you want to make each day and moment count.
Connected with this trade-off for multitasking is the crippling of our flow states. To achieve high levels of work, we need to get into the zone properly. Problem solving, creative expression or just bashing through a large quantity of mundane tasks rarely happens haphazardly, but when we attune our minds to what’s before us, and commit solid chunks of distraction-free time.
This often involves not only discipline, but the formation of habits, and even rituals to keep coming back to. Cal Newport in his book Deep Work talks about ‘Ritualising’ your work (p 117); Setting up your schedule, your office, your breaks, and your technology to allow hours of unimpeded thought, and process-driven productivity. And doing it often. Training your mind and body to get used to this style of concentration and focus. He quotes an excellent line from David Brooks where “Great creative minds think like artists, but work like accountants” (p 119).
Working like accountants probably doesn’t sound appealing to many of us, particularly in professions where you already work damn hard and don’t have time to be creative. What to do in this situation? Well probably get more sleep if you can. Hari lists the rise of physical and mental exhaustion as a key ingredient in our scatty salad. We stay up longer doing less meaningful things. Artificial light has replaced the ancient rhythms of sun, moon and stars, which dictated human life for millennia. We’ve extended the horizons of work and play, but rest lags behind in distant third with a glut of entertainment options overriding our self-control.
“Just one more episode” on the couch, is often the prelude before settling in to our favourite YouTube channels and social media feeds in bed. Most people seem to know that we’re supposed to get 8 hours sleep each night, yet modern life works against this goal (especially if young kids are thrown into the mix). I have a Fitbit which tracks my sleep each night, and I have reached 8 hours sleep twice in the space of four months. Twice! And this is someone who is trying to hit that milestone (well in my own half-baked way).
Combine these factors with the collapse of sustained reading and the disruption of mind-wandering, and it’s probably not surprising that our ability to think deeply about anything becomes quite compromised. Every spare moment is filled with another dose of electronic stimulation. I remember talking to my brother once and he loved that dead time (e.g. times in queues, commuting, bathroom breaks) can now be an opportunity to catch up on news articles, and basically never get bored. And I too love being able to access the Internet wherever we go. But it’s addictive, and a weird modern companion that we now depend on, as we forego spontaneous thoughts, conversations, and even observing our surroundings. And bringing it back to work habits, it makes it harder to sit with the dull moments of life and work, without feeling twitchy— not in a fungal way of course.
Perhaps the thing that’s most alarming about our modern technological infrastructure is how quickly it became indispensable to us. And once something becomes indispensable, it’s easy to give up other important things that cannot co-exist alongside it. The Internet creates a shadow world where the hours accumulate and shared physical spaces become sparser, smaller and somehow less real. This will only accelerate as the meta-verse becomes more of a mainstream imposition. But we also give up other things. Things touched on earlier, and some things we don’t even realise we’ve given up; Like our control.
Hari lists the rise of technology that can track and manipulate you as one of the key reasons our attention loss is so widespread. But he also lists the rise of cruel optimism as a companion idea that masks the former. That you are responsible for your technological habits and that if you simply exert raw willpower over your devices, you can regain control. And, while of course there are steps we can take to change our habits—and that we should incorporate when things are getting out of hand—these ideas often let the tech companies absolve themselves (and their predatory practices) of responsibility and duty-of-care for wider society. Almost every app, every device, every social media platform is designed to get us either hooked or livid, and to spend as much dead time on there as possible. Our alive time too.
One software engineer shared a chilling line with the US Senate: “You can try having self-control, but there are a thousand engineers on the other side of the screen working against you” (Stolen Focus, p 148).
We tend to think of technology as being at our disposal, but much of the time we’re at its disposal. We’re but a few generations into smart devices, as they evolve and adapt to increasingly take over our homes, our offices and our lives. Working like an interconnected organism that all talk to one another and stealth their way past our immune systems. Becoming part of us without us even realising, and changing us into impulsive, unpredictable, and—at times—aggressive beasts when we’re flooded with it. There is seemingly no cure for our addictions, and some would advocate metaphorically bombing this technology before it’s too late (AI and ChatGPT anyone?). Who needs ‘clickers’ when we have ‘swipers’.
Anyway I’m getting highly distracted again, which is kinda the point I guess.
Obviously revenue streams and viability matter, but surely there are other ways to produce great products that don’t have such detrimental effects on society, and that can actively help us create solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems. Thankfully there are many in the tech world who are innovating for the right reasons.
But, at the same time, these bleaker chapters highlighted how our societal incentives often favour exploitative business models, rather than what promotes human blossoming. And the companies that amass the largest empires are the ones that generally seem unconcerned about how their apps and devices might change human behaviour in negative ways. Having said that, I’m not completely devoid of hope as I read more and think about the resources that my faith tradition offers me.
The idea of digital rest is something that seems to be breaking through more and more. There’s a wonderful episode of The Ezra Klein Show where he interviews Judith Shulevitz—a Jewish author—about an ancient ritual which seems ever more intriguing in the midst of round-the-clock consumption and stimulation; ‘The Sabbath and the Art of Rest’. Something I’m vaguely familiar with as a Christian living in the 21st Century.
I might not be able to single-handedly resist the overtures of technology all the time—especially in a world that depends on it. But I can carve out a counter space with some of my time, and some of my people. Every Sunday offers me a chance to reset my week and my habits in a supportive community that cares about my soul and wellbeing. And re-discovering the Sabbath might be what pulls the distant third runner back into view. Work and even our digitised version of play can take a back seat for at least one day a week, as rest gets some well-deserved shine.
I can understand the negative connotations that sometimes come with rest. I.e. laziness, or selfishness, or failing to be productive in some way. But at the same time, I’m under no illusions that rest is something sacred in the Judeo/Christian tradition. Made as a reflection of God, and a sign of his generosity and purpose for us. We weren’t created solely as proletariats for some Capitalist deity. Work has its place, but so does rest. Now, and in the world to come, if the book of Hebrews (Chapter 4) is anything to go by. And so I want to happily embrace my creation mandate to rest, recuperate and replenish, in a way that’s different to my working week. If that means finding little ways to create distance—and even mastery—over our pocket companions on a Sunday, then it’s sure to bring value to my soul. Plus, books like Stolen Focus make it clear that they’ll have immediate relational and physiological value too.
Rather than being eaten alive by technology, or slowly setting up shop in the shadow world, we should find ways to peaceably co-exist. Maybe we’ll be better for it. Helping us focus not only on the things within our control, but on the things that bring fullness of life too.