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

Sat, May 18, 2013 - Page 9

Back in the summer of 2008 — a long time ago, in Internet terms, two years before Instagram, and about the time of Twitter’s second birthday — the US writer Nicholas Carr published a now famous essay in the Atlantic magazine entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

The more time he spent online, the more he experienced the sensation that something was eating away at his brain, Carr wrote.

“I’m not thinking the way I used to think,” he wrote.

Increasingly, he would sit down with a book, but then find himself unable to focus for more than two or three pages.

“I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text,” he wrote.

Reading, he recalled, used to feel like scuba diving in a sea of words. However, now “I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.”

In the half-decade since Carr’s essay appeared, we have endured countless scare stories about the life-destroying effects of the Internet, and by and large they have been debunked. No, the Web probably is not addictive in the sense that nicotine or heroin are; no, Facebook and Twitter are not guilty of “killing conversation” or corroding real-life friendship or making children autistic.

Yes, the Internet is “changing our brains,” but then so does everything — and, contrary to the claims of one especially panicky Newsweek cover story, it certainly is not “driving us mad.”

Yet that gnawing sense of mind--atrophy that Carr identified has not gone away, and just recently in Silicon Valley it has stopped being taboo to admit it.

“I would go into a room to get something, and by the time I got there I’d forget what I was looking for,” said Alex Pang, a Stanford University technologist who had barely turned 40 when he began to feel that life online was melting his brain. “For someone who had got through life on raw brainpower, this was unsustainable and a little terrifying.”

Carr, like any number of technology skeptics, would probably have advised Pang to take a break: disconnect from the Internet and head for the mountains, declare a gadget-free “digital sabbath” one day a week, get rid of his smartphone, or never check e-mail at night.

However, Pang is a techno-enthusiast, to put it mildly, so his instinctive first thought was the opposite. What if there was a way to use the Internet — and all our Web-connected phones and tablets and laptops and games consoles — to foster rather than erode our attention spans and to replace that sense of edgy distractedness with calm?

This is the question motivating the embryonic movement known variously as “calming technology,” “the slow web,” “conscious computing” or (Pang’s preferred term) “contemplative computing.”

Its members hope that we might be able to perform a sneaky bit of jiujitsu on the devices that dominate our lives and turn the agents of distraction into agents of serenity.

Their inventions so far include wearable sensors that deliver rewards (“calm points”) for breathing well while you work, developed by Stanford University’s calming technology laboratory; iPad apps to help you meditate yourself into a state of super-focused concentration; software that lets friends decide collectively to disable their smartphones for the duration of a restaurant meal; and scores of pieces of “zenware” designed to block distractions, with names such as Isolator and StayFocusd and Shroud and Turn Off The Lights.

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.

“We’re living in a moment when even institutions that used to be in the business of promoting reflection and deep thinking are busy tearing up the foundations that made these things possible, in favor of getting more traffic,” said Pang, whose book on contemplative computing, The Distraction Addiction, is to be published in August.

“Even universities and churches end up doing this when they go online, never mind newspapers and magazines,” he said.

The compulsiveness is given extra force, in social media, by the fear of missing out. What Stone calls “continuous partial attention” is not motivated by the desire to get more done, which is what underlies old-fashioned multitasking, but rather by “a desire not to miss anything” and “to be a live node on the network.”

To explain what makes the Web so compelling — so “addictive” in the colloquial sense, at least — the advocates of conscious computing usually end up returning to the psychologist B.F. Skinner, who conducted famous experiments on pigeons and rats at Harvard University in the 1930s.

Trapped inside “Skinner boxes,” equipped with a lever and a tray, the animals soon learned that pushing or pecking at the lever caused a pellet of food to appear on the tray; after that, they would start compulsively pecking or pushing for more. However, Skinner discovered that the most powerful way to reinforce the push-or-peck habit was to use “variable schedules of reward”: to deliver a pellet not every time the lever was pushed, but only sometimes, and unpredictably.

There is a slightly depressing view of the Web according to which we are essentially just Skinner pigeons, compulsively clicking in hopes of a squirt of dopamine, the so-called “feel good” hormone in the brain. Once you have learned about Skinner, it is impossible not to see variable schedules of reward everywhere you look online. When you click refresh on your e-mail, or when you check your phone, you are not guaranteed a new message; when you visit Facebook or open Twitter, you might or might not find an update of the sort you had been hoping for.

This might even help explain the appalling quality of so much online content. Nine times out of 10, when you click on a Huffington Post link — “PICTURE: Kate and Wills as OAPs [old age pensioners],” “Simon Cowell Just Got Weirder” — it is a tedious disappointment. However, if it predictably lived up to expectations every time, you might actually feel less compelled to click. (There is an evolutionary argument to be made, too, about the restless compulsiveness of Web use. There is little survival advantage to feeling contented, and a big one to feeling constantly slightly dissatisfied with what you have got.)

By far the funniest, or maybe the most horrifying, illustration of this situation is Cow Clicker, a Facebook game created in 2011 by the game designer Ian Bogost as a satire of undemanding “social games” such as FarmVille — in which, as Bogost put it, “you click on a cow, and that’s it.”

In Cow Clicker, you clicked on your cow and it mooed, and that was it. You then had to wait another six hours to click again, unless you were willing to part with real money (or virtual money, accumulated through clicking) for the right to click again immediately. Bogost’s joke became a surprise hit: At its height, Cow Clicker had more than 50,000 users, some paying US$20 or more for pointless “improvements” to their cow, such as making it face the opposite direction.

“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.)

I had a few minor attacks of phantom mobile phone vibrations, aka “ringxiety,” which research suggests afflicts at least 70 percent of us. By far the biggest obstacle to my experiment was the fact that the Web and e-mail are simultaneously sources of distraction and a vital tool: It is no use blocking the Internet to work when you need the Internet for work.

Still, the overall result was more calmness and a clear sense that I had gained purchase on my own mind: I was using it more than it was using me. I could jump online to look something up and then — this is the crucial bit — jump off again. For example, after a few 90-minute stretches of Weblessness I found myself not itching to get back online, but bored by the prospect. I started engaging in highly atypical behaviors, such as going for a walk, instead.

All this talk of the Internet as a black hole of distraction and compulsion provokes spluttering scorn from certain technology evangelists, who like to note that similar complaints have accompanied almost every new medium in history. Erasmus worried that the printing press would damage scholarship. Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus, argued that the invention of writing meant people would “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.”

It seems likely we will get over Internet distraction soon enough.

“One of the devices that has historically drawn the most criticism from scholars and theologians for its corrupting effect on humanity seems to have worked out pretty well,” the commentator Mathew Ingram wrote at the technology site GigaOM. “It is called the book. If we can figure that out, I’m sure we can figure out how to handle cellphones and status updates.”

According to the advocates of conscious computing, though, none of this quite gets at the point. We can all agree that Facebook and smartphones are not the first ever examples of “cognitive entanglement,” Pang’s term for the way we use technology as extensions of our own minds.

Writing things in a notebook is entanglement; so is using a library or a fixed telephone line or sending a postcard or a smoke signal.

“Entanglement is nothing new or revolutionary,” Pang wrote. “It’s what makes us human.”

The problem is not that we have suddenly started depending on technology, but that the technology we are depending on is poorly designed, too often focused on making money for its creators at its users’ expense.

Undoubtedly, we will one day figure out how to handle cellphones and status updates without the accompanying distraction and compulsion. However, that does not mean the distraction and compulsion are not a problem right now — or that it might not be wise to find ways of adapting more rapidly.

After all, distraction — as the Australian philosopher Damon Young says in his book of that name — is not just a minor irritant. It is a serious philosophical problem: What you focus on, hour by hour, day after day, ends up comprising your whole life.

“To be diverted isn’t simply to have too many stimuli but to be confused about what to attend to and why,” Young writes. “Distraction is the very opposite of emancipation: failing to see what is worthwhile in life, and lacking the wherewithal to seek it.”

To recover from techno-distraction, “what’s required is not Luddite extremism, but a more ambitious relationship to our tools — one that promotes our liberty instead of weakening it,” he writes.

What we need are ways of strengthening the muscle that lets you maintain control of your own attention, so that you can more frequently win the psychological arm-wrestle against the services and sites that are itching to control it for you.

You could begin by going to the Web site donothingfor2minutes.com and following the instructions, which are: a) to do nothing for two minutes, except b) to listen to the relaxing sound of waves. Move your mouse, or a press a key, and the word “fail” will appear in big red letters. If the very idea of visiting donothingfor2minutes.com strikes you as stupid or annoying — a tedious waste of time when you could be doing something more stimulating instead — then here is a slightly different piece of advice: you really, really need to visit.

Slow web sites:

Mac Freedom: macfreedom.com

Flux: stereopsis.com/flux

Buddhify: buddhify.com

Calm Your Box: calmbox.me

OmmWriter: ommwriter.com

HeartMath: heartmath.com

Shroud: sabi.net/nriley/software/

ReWire: rewireapp.com