I wrote most of this article using OmmWriter, which filled my screen with a wintry backdrop of bare trees and my headphones with the hypnotic clanking of old railway engines. I also used f.lux, which changed the glare of my screen to yellowy evening light, precisely timed to synchronize with the sunset outside.
If there is a single moment that symbolizes the beginning of conscious computing, it probably happened in 2007, when Linda Stone, a Silicon Valley executive with 16 years’ experience at Microsoft and Apple, followed her doctor’s advice to take a course in Buteyko breathing, a Russian technique used to treat asthma and stress.
The day afterward, sitting down at her computer to check her e-mail, she noticed — now that the topic of breathing was on her mind — that she was holding her breath.
Over the following days, she realized it was a habit; later, after conducting a research project involving more than 200 people, she estimated that about 80 percent of us unconsciously do the same. (She labeled the condition “e-mail apnea,” though it is no less common during other forms of Web use.)
Breath-holding, not surprisingly, deprives the body of oxygen, seems to exacerbate the “fight-or-flight” response and contributes, as Stone puts it, to “a sense of being in high alert at all times.”
Such are the annoying ironies of work and play in the 21st century: More and more of us are “knowledge workers,” doing jobs that require deep concentration, yet we do so on machines that seem deliberately designed to interrupt us all the time and to keep us on edge. Then, in the evenings, we try to relax using similar machines, which all too often whip us up into a state that is not relaxing at all.
The dirty secret of the Internet is that all this distraction and interruption is immensely profitable. Web companies like to boast about “creating compelling content,” or offering services that let you “stay up to date with what your friends are doing,” “share the things you love with the world” and so on.
However, the real way to build a successful online business is to be better than your rivals at undermining people’s control of their own attention. Partly, this is a result of how online advertising has traditionally worked: Advertisers pay for clicks, and a click is a click, however it is obtained. A Web site such as Mail Online does not care, at least in the short term, if you are “hate-reading” — clicking in order to share your friends’ outrage at an article’s unfairness to Benedict Cumberbatch or its bigotry toward Muslims.
Facebook does not really mind if you click a link by mistake because it tweaked the design of the site overnight without telling you. Advertising aside, commandeering people’s attention, so that they click compulsively, is just a surer way to survive in the hyper-competitive marketplace of the Web than trying to convince them intellectually that they ought to click a link, or that they will benefit in the longer term from doing so.
And let us be honest: This war for your attention is not confined only to Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest, or to the purveyors of celebrity gossip or porn. Higher-minded publications feel the same pressures.