I’ve taken a spontaneous holiday.
Not to some exotic location or escape from daily life, but rather a Twitter holiday, logging out of my account, removing it from my laptop, my phone and any other system I use.
I’m still trying to figure out what brought this on, I think it was actually an accumulation of unhappiness at how I was living my life and spending my time that resulted in some hard realizations that I’m actually an addict, an infoholic.
I crave information like a crack addict craves for their next hit, refreshing Twitter, RSS, news sites, emails, anything that has a remote chance of obtaining new content. And once I get it, I keep going and going until I’ve consumed it all, upon which I then return to my compulsive reload, refresh approach craving another sweet hit.
If I actually analyze my life, I spend a horrific amount of time actually just *checking* for the presence of new content, not even considering the amount of time I spend actually *reading* the content once I find it.
Giving me an information feed like news sites or Twitter is basically giving me a non-stop supply of a hit, a hit I will continue to consume in the greatest quantities that I possibly can. It doesn’t even matter if the information is irrelevant, doesn’t matter if I’ll forget it the next second – the fact there is information to read is what drives me.
Whilst it’s not the sole protagonist, Twitter is by far one of the worst for me – thanks to the massive popularity of Twitter, it’s quite feasible to have a minimum stream level of at least one new tweet to read every minute for 24/7 just by following a select group of people (I was almost at this level following only 400 or so and I know plenty of others who follow far more).
And generally we want to know more about what’s happening with our friends, family, idols, so we keep following more and more, wanting to read as much as we can, thanks in part to our natural curiosity.
And it’s damaging. So very damaging.
There’s a number of good articles on the effect of always being connected and fed with new information, some good starters are “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains” — Wired and “Attached to Technology and Paying a Price” — NYT. Naturally Wikipedia also has plenty of details once you start digging into attention span issues and psychological effects of internet use.
In my personal case, I now find it difficult to read things on a deep level, instead I skim for information at high speed, a trait I do place a solid amount of blame on time spent as a programmer and system administrator, always speeding through information looking for the key sections.
These days when I read a detailed article or a physical book, I’ll find that I quickly tire and want to start skimming to find the “key” bits of information, but by doing so, I lose some of what makes that writing important and doesn’t really give my mind time to process the information properly.
I’m also a multitasker. And I do it badly.
I think anyone who says they can truly multitask is deluding themselves, our minds just aren’t cut out for it. We’re good at tacking complex problems one at a time, we have the ability to multitask, but this comes at a cost of loss of attention and focus.
I’ve seen various figures floated around that a computer programmer who gets interrupted then takes around 15-30mins to regain focus on what they were doing, and in my experience it’s quite accurate. In reality, the only time I’m truly 100% productive on a programming project is at 2am when there’s no-one calling, emailing, IMing or tweeting me.
In many ways when I look back to my younger years hacking on code and Linux systems, my high productivity probably wasn’t due to having more time or less stresses, but rather due to the fact that I would spend large chunks of time entirely disconnected from the internet thanks to the horrible wonder that were dialup modems. During these periods, there wasn’t anything todo other than the project I was trying to work on, free of disruptions.
We also overlook the other side damages – is it really best to maintain a large network of causal friends vs a smaller network of very close friends? What works of art or ideas of brilliance would we be producing if not procrastinating on loading the next tweet?
On a usual evening, the time I spent writing this post would most likely have otherwise been spent posting and reading tweets. Many friends who would otherwise probably be good and active writers, artists or programmers instead spend their time re-tumblring pictures of funny cats posted by their friends.
Is it worth it? Because I don’t think it is.
I don’t want this whole post to be taken as meaning that computers and the internet are a bad thing , they are undoubtedly the two greatest developments in the history of humanity and the keystone which I have built my life around.
Rather, I’m looking into the increasingly obvious fact that we have a problem which is inherent with technology and the way we develop our communication methods and operating systems.
We’re building platforms designed for fast message processing and delivery, not for optimal human processing.
If you consider our communications applications – email clients, IM clients, social media, they are all focused around getting messages and notifications to someone as fast as possible and making sure they read/notice it as fast as possible, but take little or no consideration into our actual workflow and behavioral patterns.
My email client doesn’t comprehend “Jethro is currently busy on a coding project and this email is low priority, I won’t alert him about it” without me going to some considerable effort to clearly define keyphrases and flags to filter messages.
Operating systems, both mobile and conventional “desktop” have little concept of different busy levels, my laptop knows based on input whether I am “available” or “not available” based on my input activity, but it doesn’t know “Jethro is available for messages from a manager or fiancee but not from anyone else” or “Jethro is free to chat in 20mins time when this document he is working on is finished, try again later.”
And people themselves don’t respect or understand that you are often busy and don’t want to reply straightaway. In many cases, we regard it as the other person being actively rude if they ignore your SMS or IM for too long, in a world where anyone is less than a seconds away, we expect an instant response.
Instead we have to train ourselves to ignore these distractions and work out approaches that allow us to complete our primary tasks without disruption, to enable the deeper levels of thinking required.
I know some friends who use methods such as the Pomodoro Technique, but they require quite strong will and determination and not suitable for individuals prone to easy procrastination or poor self control.
Maybe if we can start to figure out some better designs and fix these systems to fit in with how our minds work, we can start to move forwards with software that fits us more naturally.
And maybe I’ll find the Twitter holiday so liberating I won’t come back.