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.