Handling technoference and learning to focus better

Handling digital distraction and learning to focus better

Online or offline? Where is your attention? What is your intention? How are your energy levels?

This is the first in my series of posts about the impact of social media and screen time on our wellbeing, our ability to communicate and make good decisions.  The posts have been inspired by the book “Offline”, written by Imran Rashid and Soren Kenner. This post takes about four minutes to read. 

What we pay attention to shapes our minds. Right now, society is dangerously polarised. From either side of politics, we see different facts. The facts we see depend  upon the sophisticated algorithms which interpret our past choices and shape our behaviours. Our minds are hacked to keep our eyes on screens in order to sell things to us and influence our behaviours.  

We need to educate people about how big tech leverages off weaknesses in how our brains are wired in order to gain advantage over us, how this impacts our wellbeing and behaviours and then take steps to interact online in new ways.

The book, “Offline” is a really useful wake up call to review our social media and screen time and to try and take some control of our attention so that we can learn to direct it to things in life that help us thrive.  

I bought “Offline” at the start of 2019 and it sat on my bookshelf gathering dust for a year.  I kind of knew, or thought I knew, what it was going to say; we all spend way too much time on screen time, particularly social media. And this is associated with significant changes to our brains reward mechanisms, increasing stress, reducing real-time interaction with people, hampering our ability to focus, reducing our empathy levels, increasing our filter bubble view of the world, increasing tribalism, increasing loneliness, increasing boredom, reducing self-confidence, making us more vulnerable to advertisers and marketers and reducing our energy levels and enthusiasm.  That, in a nutshell, is it.

I also thought I knew a good deal about the brain science explaining why these things seem to be happening.   I’ve just finished the book and it has given me some fresh ideas to help me understand the addictive pathways big tech companies are using to manipulate us and also some good ideas for overcoming tech addiction and making screen time and social media actually work for me.

The average person spends about 2 hours on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Tinder, LinkedIn or other social media per day.  There are about 720,000 hours in the average life.  We spend 240,000 sleeping, about 90,000 hours working and, if things remain as they are today, about 55,000 on social media.  That’s a hell of a lot of time. What does social media do for you? Does it make you connect to people in real time (for example to play sport)? Does it help you connect with people with similar hobbies to help you develop and deepen your interests? Does infinity scrolling make you happier? 

This is not a black and white book. The authors of the book are not luddites. They argue that social media, when used smartly, helps us connect, learn and grow. This book enables people to learn more about the brain science associated with social media, general screen time and game playing. With this knowledge you can start to make plans with your family, friends and colleagues to help you get the most of your online time, without falling victim to its dangers. 

I’ve summarised the main points that I found useful from the book in this post. I’ll release the post in chunks over the course of the next few weeks to help make the content easily digestible. Each section takes about 4 to 5 minutes to read.

The sections include:

  1. Information overload
  2. How big tech creates brain hacks
  3. How screen time changes our world view and our decision making
  4. The ways in which big tech draws our attention to the screen
  5. Is social media, online games and general screen time addictive?
  6. Does too much screen time distort how we see the world and undermine our decision making?
  7. Does social media improve or undermine our wellbeing? No, yes, maybe - it’s complicated
  8. Screen time, self-efficacy and being in a state of flow
  9. Thriving in a hyper connected world

Information overload

The big tech companies, such as Facebook, Amazon, Alphabet (google) and Apple, have been at the forefront of addictive design. They work to create brain hacks to pull your attention away from what you are doing.  They do this by understanding and appealing to people’s deepest desires, and worries, and have created an array of colourful and noisy tools to spark interest and draw you in.

There are now some six billion smart phones and tablets on the planet.  That’s a lot of noise and to be honest a lot of digital pollution. 90% of all the information that has ever been created by mankind has been produced in the last two years. According to Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, If you took all the information that was created by mankind up until 2003 (from cave paintings to the works of Shakespeare, the paintings Salvador Dali, the songs of the Beetles and so on) we now create as much content every two days.  We are being deluged by selfies, cat videos, fake news and endless pictures of our kids wearing every conceivable outfit in every conceivable location.

This endless diet of new information makes us thirsty for more and makes us constantly on the lookout for new things, opportunities and dangers.  This may reduce our ability to be fully engaged in a task.  The big tech companies have profited from drawing our attention away from the present. With eyes on the screen we can be sold to and influenced.  

Apple, Alphabet, Facebook and Amazon have a combined worth of approximately $4.5 Trillion (between 7 and 10% of the economic worth of all the economies and all the economic output on the planet).

When the book was written there were approximately three billion social media users on the planet, two billion Facebook users and 3.5 billion google searches per day.   The average adult experiences eleven hours of screen time per day of which approximately two hours is on social media.

Mind aid tools, external of ourselves, which help us connect with others, learn things and store information, have existed for a long time.  In the past we had maps and telephone books. Nowadays, we rely increasingly on outsourcing our memory (Daniel Wegner, Harvard). However, the tools we used, in the past, such as phone books, did not deliberately distract us.

The book explains how, in the face of an avalanche of information, we struggle to cope.  Many people have heard of Moore’s law; computer processing capacity doubling every 18 months.  This extra computing power leads to rapid increases in the amount of information that we can access and share.  The authors proceed to introduce Amdahl’s law; this compares the increase in processing power of computers with the abilities of humans to use that information. The authors compare the meteoric rise in computing power with the human capabilities of hearing, vision, visual reaction time, auditory reaction time and working memory.  These human abilities have barely changed over time. Not being able to keep up with data availability might be a factor in the rapid increase in stress, anxiety and depression seen around the world. Perhaps we just can’t cope with the amount of opportunities and threats that come to our senses. The authors question whether constantly scanning for new information leads us to feel burnt out.  Does infinite data make us overly compare ourselves to others, feel that we simply can’t handle the volume of data at work or that we are missing out on opportunities?

With so many things competing for our attention what should we do and who should we listen to? 

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Gandalf and Frodo in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. 

Takeaways from this post

  • Consider how much “technoference” you are creating in the world. Do your posts help others thrive and connect? Or are they just more noise?
  • Are the posts you share grounded in a strong evidence base?
  • As you share things and comment do you keep your emotions balanced?  For example, would you repeat your comments if you were face to face with the person?
  • What steps can you take to give your attention centres a rest? For example, taking some time to be in nature
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