Sat, May 18, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Taking control of the Internet

Twitter, Facebook, Google, YouTube ... we know the Internet is driving us to distraction, but could sitting at your computer actually calm you down?

By Oliver Burkeman  /  The Guardian, LONDON

“After a while,” Bogost told a US radio interviewer, “I realized they’re doing exactly what concerned me about these games” — becoming “compulsively attached.”

“I began to feel very disturbed about the product,” he said.

Eventually, a few months after the launch, Bogost eliminated all the cows in a Rapture-like event he called the Cowpocalypse. After it, users could keep playing only by clicking on a bare patch of grass — and some actually did.

Responding to a player who complained that Cow Clicker was no longer “a very fun game,” Bogost replied: “It wasn’t very fun before.”

It is this vicious Skinnerian cycle that conscious computing seeks to break. That is why one of the simplest pieces of advice — to check your e-mail at fixed points during the day — works so well: If you are checking only occasionally, you are virtually guaranteed the “reward” of new messages, so the lure of the variable reward dies away, and with it the constant urge to check.

Something similar is going on with services such as iDoneThis, which lets you track the work you have accomplished by responding to a daily e-mail. When it launched, its founder Walter Chen had the capacity to process the e-mails only once a day, so to put a positive spin on things, and mainly as a joke, he added a note: “iDoneThis is part of the slow Web movement. After you e-mail us, your calendar is not updated instantaneously, but rest up, and you’ll find an updated calendar when you awake.”

It is hard to imagine Mark Zuckerberg approving a feature that actively encouraged making fewer visits to Facebook. However, maybe we would all be a bit happier if he did.

In March, I spent a week trying to live as faithfully as possible in accordance with the philosophy of calming (or conscious or contemplative) computing. At home, I stopped using my Nexus smartphone as a timepiece — I wore a watch instead — to prevent the otherwise inevitable slide from checking the time, or silencing the alarm, into checking my e-mail, my Twitter feed or Wikipedia’s List Of Unusual Deaths.

After a couple of days, I disabled the Gmail and Twitter apps completely, and stored my phone in my bag while I worked, frequently forgetting it for hours at a time. At work, I shut off the Internet in 90-minute slabs using Mac Freedom, the “Internet blocking productivity software” championed by such writerly big shots as Zadie Smith and the late Nora Ephron. (“Freedom enforces freedom,” its Web site explains chillingly.)

Most mornings, I also managed 10 minutes with ReWire, a concentration-enhancing meditation app for the iPad that plays songs from your music library in short bursts, interrupted by silence; your job is to press a button as fast as you can each time you notice the music has stopped. I also tried to check my e-mail no more than three times a day, and at fixed points: 9:30am, 1:30pm and 5pm.

Disconcerting things began to happen. I am embarrassed to report that I found myself doing what is referred to, in Pang’s book, as “paper-tweeting”: scribbling supposedly witty wisecracks in a notebook as a substitute for the urge to share them online.

(At least I never had a problem with “sleep texting,” which, at least according to a few dubious media reports, is now a thing among serious smartphone addicts.)

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