How smartphones killed off boredom – and ushered in an age of distraction

20170516Smartphone

How smartphones killed off boredom – From The Irish Times, May 11th, 2017

Next month see the 10th anniversary of the release of the first iPhone and the start of the smartphone revolution that has shaped the intervening decade in many ways, both obvious and subtle.
But the birth of the smartphone also presaged the death of something else, something whose absence we hardly remark on but which is of momentous importance – the smartphone has in many ways eliminated boredom in the developed world.
Those moments of idle reflection and those minutes of frustrating inactivity have been rendered a thing of the past by the devices in our pockets, which provide short bursts of diversion whenever we have a moment to fill.
Very soon after getting my first iPhone, I realised that boredom was over – I had an infinite supply of articles and books to read at any moment. And this was before Twitter and Facebook became fine-honed mobile experiences, cunningly engineered to hog users’ attention.
And sure enough, I haven’t experienced boredom in the classic sense in years – it exists for me now more as a kind of vivid childhood memory rather than as a human emotion I might experience in daily life. And I’m certainly not alone in not missing it remotely.
Like most people, I had a strong aversion to boredom, and felt its imminent demise would be one of the great achievements of the smartphone, both on the individual level and in the aggregate. I  found persuasive the prediction of the US public intellectual Clay Shirky in his 2010 book Cognitive Surplus that the spread of the internet would unleash a huge wave of previously untapped human potential – the “cognitive surplus” of the title – leading to a burst of extra productivity and creativity.
Needless to say, it will be a very long time before we comprehensively reckon with how significant the extinction of boredom will be for our species, but now it’s clear that we can’t just dispense with a basic human experience like boredom and not have some unintended consequences to grapple with.
A decade on, and it’s clear that we are already facing many of those unintended consequences. That is because we have not substituted boredom with constant engagement, but rather with distraction. And it turns out constant distraction, with frequent hits of dopamine at every hint of novelty, isn’t necessarily a healthy state of mind.
Around the same time as Shirky’s book came out, Nicholas Carr was selling an altogether more pessimistic vision of how we were going to be affected by immersing ourselves in technology in his book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”. In Carr’s view, the internet was doing nothing good for our brains, eroding our ability to focus and think deeply.
Carr seemed to echo the warnings of previous generations about the dangers of television, or even the famous warning by Socrates on the potential damage of writing – it epitomised the predictable moral panic that greets every new technology. But while Carr’s polemic was a little histrionic for my taste, the intervening years have proven him rather prescient, and his thesis has been elaborated on by a multitude of writers, catering to an audience who are clearly feeling the ill effects of constant distraction.
Books such as Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport, Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives by David Levy, and The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by psychologist Larry Rosen and neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley are just some of the high-profile examples of the genre in recent years, the sense of techno-induced anxiety palpable in each of those subtitles.
Indeed, our compulsive need for smartphone distraction is drawing parallels with another form of mass addiction with harmful consequences. In a recent essay on the corrosive effect of smartphone dependence, the millennial self-help writer Mark Manson made the explicit comparison with smoking: “It’s attention pollution when somebody else’s inability to focus or control themselves then interferes with the attention and focus of those around them…The same way second-hand smoke harms the lungs of people around the smoker, smartphones harm the attention and focus of people around the smartphone user. It hijacks our senses.”
Perhaps these are all just growing pains, and the smartphone era is a mere phase, a temporarily jarring transition until we reach a point when we realise our brains are actually perfectly capable of diving in and out of different streams of information, and that it is society that needs to catch up with our diversion-filled environment.
But I suspect the conclusion will be something quite different. Constant distraction, obviously enough, is bad for us. But less intuitively, perhaps we also need to admit that doses of boredom are good for us.

To like or to dislike, that is the question

From The Irish Times, September 19th, 2015


Since its introduction in 2009, Facebook’s “like” button has become a ubiquitous unit of online expression. However, its limitations were always obvious: it’s far too reductive even as a swift mode of interaction.

One example I can recall occurred earlier this year when a good friend wrote a deeply affecting Facebook post about his devastation at the sudden death of a colleague.

He expressly asked people not to like it, but inevitably, the post received about a dozen likes, thoughtless little actions that presumably meant well but which in some small way exacerbated my friend’s grief. These feelings were too real, the emotions too raw, for a reaction as trite as a like.

Those limitations were acknowledged this week when founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company was experimenting with a “Dislike” button and other variations.

“I think people have asked about the dislike button for many years,” Zuckerberg said at a meeting with staff. “What they really want is the ability to express empathy. Not every moment is a good moment . . . your friends want to be able to express that they understand and relate to you, so I do think it’s important to give people more options than just like as a quick way to emote.”

The announcement generated a fair degree of alarm: Facebook has a rather inglorious habit of infuriating users with its tinkering.

One concern was whether the move will add to the online world’s already deep well of negativity; many fear that a dislike button would be a baton in the hand of the bullies, a tool of snide derision rather than an expression of empathy.

A larger concern, however, is how the like button and its imminent variations can actually limit our interactions; in a technical sense, our ability to communicate is limited only by our vocabulary, but when we transpose language, with its rich variety, for a series of buttons crudely approximating feelings, we constrain that communication in very real ways.

Obviously, the like button is not a replacement for language, but the rise of that blue “thumbs up” logo demonstrated a widespread desire to abbreviate our communications in the digital domain, “a quick way to emote”, as Zuckerberg put it. As such, there’s an undeniable vapidity to the like button, in that it encapsulates a shallowness to our online relationships that is potentially quite corrosive.

Particularly for the millennial generation of 20-somethings that has grown up interacting with their peers on Facebook, the like button might ultimately be seen less as a signature mode of interaction and more as a signifier of superficiality.

A chat with David Carr

20150213David Carr

So saddened to hear about the sudden death of David Carr. I was fortunate enough to interview him at the Web Summit in 2013, and he was terrific company, and just as hilariously irascible as you would imagine. His legacy, not just as a media critic but as a chronicler of our times, will be immense.

FROM THE IRISH TIMES, NOVEMBER 1st, 2013

The past few months has been a febrile time in the US media world, with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post for $250 million and Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar vowing to put the same amount of money into a new digital-only media venture.

Such a level of activity has meant the inimitable David Carr, media correspondent of The New York Times, has had an exceptionally busy time reporting on, and making sense of, all these developments.

“The in-migration of half a billion in capital is huge,” he says. “When you cover media, it seems like for so long we’ve been the girl at the party that nobody wants to dance with. Capital has been fleeing us over and over again. And to see not just money, but smart money going to what appears to be quality content is super exciting and definitely not something I would have predicted.”

How the Washington Post changes under its new steward is an interesting question that everyone in the media business is asking. The fact that two distinctly different news projects funded by internet billionaires will be developing in parallel presents media watchers with a perfect experiment in determining how the media business is being changed.

“Bezos has a willingness and energy to re-ask fundamental questions and perhaps answer them in a new way,” says Carr. “It’s nice to see them side by side – it begs the question are the things a legacy brand brings in terms of reputation, a great talent pool, an embedded audience, worth everything else that legacy brings to the table, which is legacy costs, habits of doing things that are probably not the best. In a sense, you’ve got one laid down next to the other, and it will be great to watch them develop.

Carr was in Dublin to attend the Web Summit, where he interviewed Shane Smith, the founder of Vice, the alternative magazine that has grown into a billion-dollar media behemoth. Carr and Smith famously clashed before, as caught in a scene in the film Page One, a documentary about The New York Times. Anyone hoping for a fiery rematch, however, was disappointed – “I’ve known Shane a long time and I’m very fond of him,” says Carr. The strong relationship between the two figures, both iconoclasts despite their different media backgrounds, was in ample evidence.

The rise of media empires such as Vice, Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post, however, hints at the changing nature of media consumption patterns, and how the internet is affecting audience appetites. How can the established media brands thrive in this environment?

“We’re in this long dark tunnel, a pretty uncomfortable place, but I think people are holding hands more. We’re all in the same business – we’re all in the news business. We all have a shared future.”

That said, despite the dramatically changing landscape, those established media brands are still held in high regard, says Carr – they are still the prestige names in the industry.

“What I worry about is the disappearance of the village common where we all meet and discuss things. I think if you read the Washington Post or New York Times or Wall Street Journal, I think we’re all dealing with basically the same facts. I don’t want to get to a situation where we lost that.”

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