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Binary Balance

Life on the digital knife edge

Goldfish in a sea of information

There’s been a fair bit written about how people are noticing that the Internet is changing the way our minds work in subtle and perhaps disturbing ways. The gist of it being that the always on, fire hose of information that the Internet has become is turning us into ‘digital gold fish’ and could be the cause or enabler of such coined maladies as ‘Nerd Attention Deficiency Disorder’ (somewhat tongue in cheek) or ‘Internet Anxiety Disorder’ (less tongue in cheek). The previous links are a little old, but the more recent articles on this subject are pretty much still saying the same thing. There was even a book written on the subject called The Shallows.

At first I scoffed at the idea that the Internet was having any tangible effect on the way my mind worked. I read a few pieces on how the Internet is ostensibly contracting people’s attention spans and thought well, that’s not me… I can concentrate like some kind of concentrating machine developed solely for the purpose of concentrating, often beyond my body’s ability to keep up. Many a weekend I have spent attacking various projects over lengthy time periods. When I finally look around I realise I’ve just spent the better part of 8 or 10 hours sitting in front of my computer without having eaten and barely having gotten up for a break1.

But I’ve been noticing something in my own behaviour that may have some relationship to this Internet goldfish business: I’m reading things too quickly. I’m finding that when I read an article or something on the Internet, I’m skimming over words, occasionally whole sentences or paragraphs, I’m not really taking them in and I have been doing this in a largely unconscious way. The obvious question I then posed myself was why am I doing this? The best answer I can come up with is: because there’s so much out there to learn and know, I feel like I’m always having to rush to keep up. A facet of ‘Internet Anxiety Disorder’ perhaps2.

I most often find that I’ll be entering into this unconscious skimming mode when I’m idly consuming random content on the Internet. I might be perusing an article found on HN or Reddit and bam! I find I’ve just read an article, skimmed over some amount of it and have retained not as much as I would have hoped. Just yesterday I replied to a thread on HN, where I actually took the time to write an 85 word reply without realising that the premise of my reply had already been plainly ruled out by the original post. D’oh. I was indeed quite tired from a day of computering and this surely had something to do with it but later on I started to wonder if something a bit more systemic was going on here. On more than just this one occasion I realised I had been reading stuff too quickly, not taking it in properly and I can’t blame tiredness alone for all of these occasions.

Contrast this with my previously mentioned weekend projects where I can have the opposite problem, I’m perhaps sometimes too focused and don’t take breaks when I should, be it because I’m just tired or because I’m frustrated with a problem that I can’t think of a way to solve and rather than take a break and come back to it with a clear mind, I stubbornly refuse to quit (you can’t beat me, you bastard code!). In any case, lack of attention isn’t usually the problem on these occasions.

The main difference I see in these two types of activity is the mental energy that they require. I can read random articles on the Internet without much presence of mind. However, writing code, playing with databases and website interfaces usually takes all the focus I can throw at it. Plus tinkering with websites and web applications is an activity that I usually quite enjoy, that probably has something to do with it as well.

So what tentative conclusions or action items will I draw from all this? firstly I’m going to actively try and read articles and posts more slowly. Like probably most people who spend an inordinate amount of time on the Internet, I can read pretty damn fast and I’m starting to think that this isn’t always a good thing. I’m going to consciously stop myself when I start feeling like there’s too much out there and I need to keep up with it all.

Secondly, one possible way to combat ‘Internet Anxiety Disorder’ or the goldfishing of your brain or whatever one wishes to call it might be to find activities that you enjoy (or at least that you don’t dislike) that are also quite mentally taxing or engaging, things that require some depth of focus. Find stuff that you simply can’t skim if you want to do it right and then do it right. For those of us who write code or participate in related areas of interest, this is a pretty obvious candidate. But I suspect that other fields containing subtlety or intricacy, requiring some commitment might work as well. Perhaps philosophy, economics or mathematics for example. Maybe even just something as simple as reading a novel might do.

I wonder how the younger generations will deal with and be affected by this issue though. I gather I would generally be considered as being one of the last of Generation X or less commonly one of the first of Generation Y. While some of my earliest memories involve my parents SX-64 and I would certainly say I grew up with computers and gaming consoles, I would not consider myself to have grown up with the Internet. I didn’t really start taking a lot of notice of it until around the mid to late nineties, during my teenage years. The kids today really are growing up with the Internet, with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and all the rest. I wonder if this may mean that for them, actively practising the ability to focus in depth may be more important than it is for me. Perhaps the years of my youth that I spent geeking out sans the Internet have given me some kind of partial immunity to the goldfishing of the brain that they may not have. I spent a huge amount of time reading when I was young. I was into comics, fantasy and sci-fi novels, pen-and-paper based role playing games like AD&D, Rifts and Champions. When I think about them now, all of these activities cultivated focus. Or maybe I’m completely wrong and young people these days (or at least young geeks these days) are getting exactly the same kind of inoculation that I imagine I may have gotten, the only difference is they’re just playing WoW instead. I’d be interested to hear what Gen Y and Z members think about this topic.

The Information fire hose may be making it easier for us to become a race of article skimmers with 9 second attention spans but I believe this isn’t a foregone conclusion that we are all steadily trudging towards whether we like it or not. I believe we have control over our own minds and how we use them, even on the Internet.

  1. I don’t unreservedly see this as a good thing and I don’t mention it as some kind of badge of honour. Being ‘in the zone’ can be great, but as I get older I realise that I am beginning to pay a larger and larger price for this kind of heedless, obsessive focus. My current plan is to put a little more structure into it to ensure that I can get the benefits of being ‘in the zone’ but at the same time, not adversely affect my health. 

  2. While this is not particularly relevant to the main discussion at hand, I have mixed feelings about society’s tendency to slap a diagnosis aiding label on seemingly any and all problems that a person may face in their lifetime. From one point of view I guess it can make sense, giving a problem a name can be a way of focusing attention and resources on the issue. However, all too often I get the feeling that issues - particularly those of a psychological nature - are labelled at least partially for the purpose of turning them into a syndrome that can then be addressed by the supply of drugs that really only treat the symptoms. 

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