Tag Archives: attention

Retreating to Study Technology’s Cognitive Impact

Five neur­os­cient­ists trav­elled into deep­est Glen Canyon, Utah, to con­tem­plate how tech­no­logy has changes their beha­viour. Some were scep­tics and some were believ­ers, and by tak­ing this forced break from their com­puters and gad­gets (there was no mobile phone recep­tion or power) they were determ­ined to find out wheth­er or not mod­ern tech­no­logy inhib­its their “deep thought” and can cause them anxi­ety.

This bit of self-exper­i­ment­a­tion and cog­nit­ive reflec­tion is a bit too light on the con­clu­sions for my lik­ing, but this art­icle, from The New York Times’ Unplugged series that exam­ines “how a deluge of data can affect the way people think and behave”, does have this that’s worth think­ing about:

[By day three] the group has become more reflect­ive, quieter, more focused on the sur­round­ings. […]
The oth­ers are more relaxed too. Mr. Braver decides against cof­fee, bypassing his usu­al ritu­al. The next day, he neg­lects to put on his watch, though he cau­tions against read­ing too much into it. […]

Mr. Stray­er, the believ­er, says the trav­el­ers are exper­i­en­cing a stage of relax­a­tion he calls “third-day syn­drome.” Its symp­toms may be unsur­pris­ing. But even the more skep­tic­al of the sci­ent­ists say some­thing is hap­pen­ing to their brains that rein­forces their sci­entif­ic dis­cus­sions — some­thing that could be import­ant to help­ing people cope in a world of con­stant elec­tron­ic noise.

“If we can find out that people are walk­ing around fatigued and not real­iz­ing their cog­nit­ive poten­tial,” Mr. Braver says, then pauses and adds: “What can we do to get us back to our full poten­tial?”

“Third-day syn­drome”. I like that, and it rings true. Week­ends away to nearby cit­ies don’t do it for me in terms of dis­en­ga­ging and allow­ing free thought; I need at least four days.

One more com­ment that was a bit too close for com­fort:

Tech­no­logy has redefined the notion of what is “urgent.” How soon do people need to get inform­a­tion and respond to it? The believ­ers in the group say the drum­beat of incom­ing data has cre­ated a false sense of urgency that can affect people’s abil­ity to focus.

How to Internet: Reading

One of the first prob­lems you’re likely to run across as someone who’s now find­ing lots of inter­est­ing things on the inter­net is that you’re amass­ing more stuff you want to read than you’ve ever had before and it’s get­ting hard to track. If you’re like I was for about five years, this will likely take the form of hav­ing 80 tabs open per­sist­ently caus­ing your browser to be slow and your poten­tial for cata­stroph­ic data loss to be high.

There are three big obstacles to get­ting read­ing done on the inter­net. The first, and hard­est to fix tech­nic­ally, is your con­text. That is: if you’re used to just get­ting on the inter­net to offer con­stant par­tial atten­tion to your brows­ing while instant mes­saging, listen­ing to music, and watch­ing video clips, set­tling in to a multi-page essay will feel very dif­fi­cult. So too, if you fre­quently focus only on the inter­net, but click like mad and just skim everything, read­ing will feel broken to you.

There are two solu­tions to this prob­lem: change you situ­ation and change your mind. Fre­quently people who find them­selves unable to focus at the com­puter will find them­selves much more able to do so on a tab­let, e‑reader, or even phone because they have dif­fer­ent habits there. This is a subtle and auto­mat­ic way to change what you’re expect­ing on the inter­net without expend­ing the men­tal effort to actu­ally execute with the oth­er option, which is just to put some effort into calm­ing your mind and allow­ing your­self to focus. (Like most things I’ve writ­ten about this weeks, whole books could be writ­ten about this para­graph.)

The second obstacle is in some sense the most mundane, but if one is to judge by the amount it gets talked about, also the most frus­trat­ing. If you spend much time at all try­ing to read on the inter­net you’ll soon notice the fre­quency with which pub­lish­ers (espe­cially those com­ing from oth­er media) divide their con­tent to max­im­ize page views. A 1000 word art­icle split over ten pages is a good way to drive page views but ter­rible for read­er sat­is­fac­tion. There a num­ber of ways to un-pagin­ate an article—browser exten­sions, web ser­vices, and loc­al soft­ware all exist to do this pars­ing for you—but the most used is simply the print­er-friendly view that most such sites provide.

But that solu­tion gets us to the final not­able prob­lem, which is that many pages on the inter­net that house art­icles you want to read wer­en’t really built for read­ing. Prob­ably the most import­ant way in which they aren’t is that they have (visu­ally) loud ads and oth­er con­tent sur­round­ing them that pulls your eye and atten­tion away from read­ing. Anoth­er prob­lem is type set poorly, things like: type set too small or too large, type set in very wide columns so you con­stantly lose your place (espe­cially com­mon on print­er-friendly pages), and poor con­trast between the type and the back­ground. I believe that these prob­lem are today best solved with Read­able. What Read­able offers is a book­mark­let (a bit of Javas­cript dis­guised as a book­mark) that auto­mat­ic­ally changes any page on the inter­net to exactly the format­ting you’ve told it you want pages to have for read­ing. This concept first came from Read­ab­il­ity, but that has sub­sequently become a far more fea­ture-full and com­plex tool.

Finally, we need to tackle that tab over­load issue, because even as browsers get bet­ter at not los­ing such data they still do. And, as people get more and more power­ful and mobile phones and tab­lets, keep­ing everything on your desktop is ever less feas­ible. The best solu­tion I know of is to effect­ively out­source your tabs. Send all of them off to a book­mark­ing tool, be it deli­cious, Pin­board, nor­mal book­marks (with or without syncing), or a tool that’s pur­pose-built to handle all those art­icles you want to read.

Instapa­per is what I use, but it’s optim­ized for an Apple-cent­ric tech­nic­al envir­on­ment. It’s great if you want read art­icles off­line on an iPad or iPhone, but does­n’t have nat­ive cli­ents for any oth­er platform. Read­ab­il­ity, which was men­tioned earli­er, is a more plat­form-agnost­ic altern­at­ive (by vir­tue of a web app) which offers the nice perk that you auto­mat­ic­ally pass on a por­tion of your mem­ber­ship cost to the pub­lish­ers you most fre­quently use the ser­vice to read. (Though the fact the you’re pay­ing for mem­ber­ship is a non-trivi­al down­side.) Bey­ond those there are num­ber of oth­er ser­vices built for this pur­pose, the most prom­in­ent of which is Read it Later. I have no exper­i­ence or expert­ise at all with any of this last class.

I hope you now under­stand the import­ance of the triple threat of the print­er-friendly view, in-situ reformat­ter, and the read­ing-cent­ric book­mark­ing ser­vice. Far more import­antly, I hope you’ve found a solu­tion to your most frus­trat­ing struggle in actu­ally read­ing all that great web-con­tent you’re now find­ing.

How to Internet: Staying Current

For the unini­ti­ated, phrases like “Subscribe to this Blo­g”, “RSS feed”, and “Feed Read­er” are just so much noise. So here’s a very short explan­a­tion: you use a “feed read­er” to “sub­scribe” to a blog using its “RSS feed”. Make sense?

To use a slightly more ana­log story, you can think of this whole thing as a way to build a news­pa­per of your choos­ing. (That’s the feed read­er.) You build this news­pa­per by choos­ing indi­vidu­al report­ers who your like (RSS feeds), and then their con­tent is auto­mat­ic­ally added to your news­pa­per every time they pro­duce it. This can be, as you might guess, a much bet­ter way to know what hap­pen­ing at the sites you care about than manu­ally try­ing to check them at an inter­val you care about.

It’s prob­ably true, though I have no data on this, that RSS feeds are known to about 20% of inter­net users. And that among those 20%, about 80% use and enjoy them. That oth­er 20% does­n’t like them for a vari­ety of reas­ons and so uses some­thing else.

In most cases, “some­thing else” means some type of book­marks sys­tem. The most com­mon form of this is a flat set of book­marks that you pick through and vis­it as it strikes your fancy. A slightly improved ver­sion of this is a simple folder set where you reg­u­larly open the con­tents of your folders into tabs. This can be fur­ther enhanced by break­ing down said folders into the approx­im­ate fre­quency you want to vis­it the site, and then open­ing them on roughly this sched­ule.

The whole book­marks option is not use­less or totally fool­ish, but giv­en the choice I don’t under­stand why any­one would choose it. RSS feeds are a clearly bet­ter solu­tion as they make it pos­sible for you to nev­er miss any­thing, make it easy to save things to revis­it at a bet­ter time, and can be made massively flex­ible and mobile in a way that web­sites rarely are.

There were once oth­er not­able RSS read­ers, but today if you’re doing it you’re almost cer­tainly util­iz­ing Google Read­er in some way. If you refuse, there are oth­er solu­tions that exist: many email cli­ent have RSS read­ers built-in, most browsers let you set up RSS folders, and some stan­dalone non-Google using cli­ents exist. But because they’re so obscure and rarely used, I’m not going to explain them to you.

Google Read­er is the best option for in-browser RSS brows­ing, and it’s an even bet­ter option if you like out-of-browser RSS brows­ing (because so many cli­ents for smart­phones, tab­lets, and the desktop use it for syn­chron­iz­a­tion). Bey­ond the fact that you’ll want a Google Read­er account, there’s not much advice about tech­no­logy to give. If you find the browser ver­sion inad­equate you can find one of many cli­ents for your desktop, iPad, or Android phone. Any spe­cif­ic recom­mend­a­tions I may have about soft­ware are too plat­form spe­cif­ic for me to feel they’ll be valu­able to share.

But as someone who’s been using RSS feeds for about sev­en years, I have a recom­mend­a­tion about man­aging all that stuff that you’ll now find so easy to col­lect. All feeds can be under­stood as belong­ing to one of two cat­egor­ies: Noise—content that you like brows­ing but rarely care to pay care­ful atten­tion to; for me this is things like The Awl, Giz­modo, and Boing Boing—and Signal—stuff you’ll be quite sad to miss items from; for me, things like I recom­men­ded yes­ter­day. This is the basic type of folder sys­tem I recom­mend set­ting up in Google Read­er.

A lot of people choose to only have Sig­nal in their feed read­er, and I do think that’s a val­id way to deal with the very real danger for gath­er­ing an over­whelm­ing volume of stuff that feeds cre­ate. But over the last couple years I’ve built a sys­tem that I think I pre­serves much of the serendip­ity that makes the inter­net such a magic­al place but removes much of the too-much-stuff feel­ing that fre­quently goes along with it. My Sig­nal & Noise sys­tem also works great for read­ing on the go.

Regard­less of your feed volume, I think you want to stick to less than 100 new items com­ing in as “Sig­nal” each day. This is the stuff that you most want to read, so keep it to a volume that you can really give care­ful atten­tion. Sig­nal is also the stuff you’ll cut last when you’re low on time to check these things, and you don’t really want it at so high a volume you have to cut it too.

Noise is your fail safe. When it all gets to feel like too much volume, you can mark all that Noise as read and feel little con­cern because you know you rarely find light­ning in there. But to my mind, you can eas­ily go through more than 1000 “Noise” items a day and you won’t feel much pain. (Though if you do have that much volume, I recom­mend you actu­ally have mul­tiple “Noise” folders, divided by top­ic area.) The time you spend on your Noise should come out about equal to what you spend on Sig­nal.

That’s because you can eas­ily “read” your Noise by rel­at­ively quickly glan­cing past the head­lines and click­ing just the 20 or so that strike your interest. Sort­ing your Sig­nal should inher­ently be harder, as it’s got a rather large pro­por­tion of things that you like, want to read care­fully, and maybe even spend a week think­ing about.

A final note on this sys­tem: because of the amount of stuff I churn daily and the per­cent­age of time that I do it without an inter­net con­nec­tion (anoth­er advant­age RSS has over web­sites) I per­son­ally find it use­ful to have an inter­me­di­ate folder. A “Noisy Sig­nal” folder of feeds that have between 1 in 5 to 1 in 20 items that I really care to see closely. That allows me to more eas­ily keep the inter­est­ing stuff I don’t have time to closely exam­ine while on the go togeth­er, for future exam­in­a­tion beside my Sig­nal folder. Wheth­er or not that’s a valu­able idea for you I’ll not spec­u­late.

To wrap up, RSS feeds are your friend if you have an interest in fol­low­ing more web­sites than you can check manu­ally at sane inter­vals. They can over­whelm if you jump in too deep, or without enough pre­par­a­tion. But using the Sig­nal & Noise sys­tem, I see more than most people could even fathom on a daily basis, but it takes just a frac­tion of my time and energy. And any such advant­age you can get, I recom­mend using.

How to Internet: Dividing Attention

There’s a huge cor­nu­copia of stuff on the inter­net, far more than even the most adept writer could hope to sur­vey with even a full book on the top­ic. My goal is not to tell you what to pay atten­tion to. Rather, I hope to give you some inter­est­ing places to start and some guideline with which to find oth­ers.

In the spir­it of cov­er­ing everything, I think the first thing on the cur­rent inter­net that one must be aware of is 4chan’s /b/. /b/ (nev­er safe for work) is a pro­fane, juven­ile and largely dis­taste­ful part of the inter­net. But it’s also the home of its roil­ing sub­con­scious mind, and so the font of much of its nat­ive cre­ativ­ity. LOLCats star­ted on /b/ as did just about a mil­lion oth­er memes that you may or may not have heard of. I recom­mend one remain aware of /b/, but fre­quent­ing is prob­ably bad for your health.

A step toward where we might like to spend time is red­dit, a com­munity that con­stantly makes ref­er­ence to itself as the bridge between /b/ (where inter­net memes are born) and Face­book (where memes go to either become over­used or mis­un­der­stood). I check red­dit at least once a day, and it’s always good for some lulz (a vari­ant of LOL, usu­ally used to con­note enjoy­ment, sat­is­fac­tion, or fun). It’s not the place you should go look­ing for high qual­ity ana­lys­is of recent events or to get an edu­ca­tion, but it’s always fun and some­times edu­ca­tion­al.

Some oth­er less-well-known but very sol­id per­son­al favor­ites:

  • Waxy.org Links – Andy Baio occa­sion­ally writes longer art­icles of qual­ity that are worth fol­low­ing, but it’s his odd little link blog that really makes an impres­sion and offers a view of the things Baio likes that are newly pop­u­lar on the inter­net.
  • kottke.org – Jason Kot­tke has one of the longest-act­ive and most pop­u­lar link blogs on the Inter­net. His coin­age of “Lib­er­al Arts 2.0” makes a pretty good story for what I see as the core of inter­net­ing. (Jason’s also build­ing a meta-social-media site called Stellar–currently a closed beta–whose Inter­est­ing aggreg­at­or con­stantly churns up inter­est­ing and pleas­ant diver­sions you don’t need to be a mem­ber to see.)
  • Meta­fil­ter – Meta­fil­ter is prob­ably the most widely praised and cited inter­net com­munity. The main blog is pos­ted by mem­bers of the com­munity, the only bar­ri­er to post­ing is the one-time five dol­lar regis­tra­tion fee. And yet, if you’re will­ing to deal with the volume, there are few places that will give you a bet­ter view of what was recently pop­u­lar or note­worthy on the inter­net. Also of note is AskMeta­fil­ter, a sub­set of the site ded­ic­ated purely to ask­ing and answer­ing ques­tions. (If you’re volume sens­it­ive, I recom­mend the Pop­u­lar Favor­ites view.)
  • The Lone Gun­man – I thought about not includ­ing this on the grounds that self-ref­er­en­cing is even less accept­able on the inter­net than it is off. But then I decided that I’m just a guest here, and so it’s not really self-pimp­ing. When Lloy­d’s here, his stuff is reg­u­larly inter­est­ing and thought-pro­vok­ing, and not really as inter­net-cul­ture‑y as much that I’ve cited above.
  • Wehr in the World – Justin Wehr’s blog is prob­ably less about inter­net cul­ture than Lloy­d’s is, but it show­cases a type of con­fid­ent curi­os­ity that I very much like. His blog is the single strongest recom­mend­a­tion I would have for fans of Lone Gun­man.
  • The Browser – Fur­ther still down the road from the inter­net-cul­ture that eman­ates from /b/ is The Browser, my per­son­al favor­ite source for mostly old-media art­icles that are inter­est­ing and avail­able on the inter­net. Among wide swath of sites that try to do this on the inter­net, I like The Browser best for its brief but opin­ion­ated and inform­at­ive sum­mar­ies of the con­tent it links to. More people who are try­ing to emu­late its mis­sion need to learn the value of this.

These per­son­al recom­mend­a­tions are a place for you to start to pay atten­tion to the inter­net. They’re not going to be all you’ll ever want to pay atten­tion to, or all that’s worth pay­ing atten­tion to, but they’re more use­ful than noth­ing. Even if you hate them all, you now know six web­sites you don’t need to spend your atten­tion on.

One of the first rules of the inter­net is that you only need to fol­low what you like. There’s so much stuff on this world wide web that pay­ing atten­tion to stuff that does­n’t excite or chal­lenge you is just plain stu­pid. (To be clear, I don’t mean like in the sense that inter­net crit­ics fre­quently take it of “this is in com­plete accord­ance with my world­view”, but rather in the sense of “I feel this is worthy of my atten­tion”. The best polit­ic­al writers, for example, are those with whom you dis­agree but share enough that you can grok their per­spect­ive.)

The second rule in pay­ing atten­tion on the inter­net is to fol­low and unfol­low promis­cu­ously. Don’t be afraid to offer your atten­tion to some­thing that looks inter­est­ing, and nev­er be afraid to take it back. As I said, there’s no point fol­low­ing what you don’t like. But because fol­low­ing pub­lic­a­tions and people is so cheap on the inter­net, it’s also worth it to learn not to be afraid to try some­thing that you sus­pect you might like.

These two rules paired togeth­er are the best advice I can give about how you should actu­ally divide your atten­tion on the inter­net. Tomor­row, we’ll make it easi­er to do that divid­ing, and reduce the time you need to spend to pay atten­tion.

‘Bit Culture’ and the Benefits of Distraction

The inform­a­tion con­sump­tion habits of many in the young­er generations–one fea­ture of the ‘Inter­net inform­a­tion culture’–has many mer­its, des­pite its many detract­ors. So says Ban Cas­nocha in an art­icle for The Amer­ic­an that acts as both a review of Tyler Cowen’s Cre­ate Your Own Eco­nomy and a fairly pos­it­ive and com­pre­hens­ive over­view of the “bit cul­ture” and its affects on atten­tion and learn­ing.

Cas­nocha begins with a look at his own media con­sump­tion habits (that closely mir­rors mine and, no doubt, many of yours, too) and a couple of the­or­ies for explain­ing this style:

The first is eco­nom­ic: when cul­ture is free and a click away, as it is on blogs and Twit­ter and the broad­er Inter­net, we sample broadly and con­sume it in smal­ler chunks: “When access is easy, we tend to favor the short, the sweet, and the bitty. When access is dif­fi­cult, we tend to look for large-scale pro­duc­tions, extra­vag­an­zas, and mas­ter­pieces,” […]

The second reas­on is the intel­lec­tu­al and emo­tion­al stim­u­la­tion we exper­i­ence by assem­bling a cus­tom stream of bits. Cowen refers to this pro­cess as the “daily self-assembly of syn­thet­ic exper­i­ences.” My inputs appear a chaot­ic jumble of scattered inform­a­tion but to me they touch all my interest points. When I con­sume them as a blend, I see all-import­ant con­nec­tions between the dif­fer­ent intel­lec­tu­al nar­rat­ives I fol­low […]

When skep­tics make sweep­ing neg­at­ive claims about how the Web affects cog­ni­tion, they are for­get­ting the people whose nat­ur­al tend­en­cies and strengths blos­som in an inform­a­tion-rich envir­on­ment. Cowen’s over­rid­ing point, delivered in a “can­’t we all just get along” spir­it, is that every­one pro­cesses the stim­uli of the world dif­fer­ently. Every­one deploys atten­tion in their own way. We should embrace the new tools—even if we do not per­son­ally bene­fit— that allow the infovores among us to per­form tasks effect­ively and acquire know­ledge rap­idly.