Is it possible to think any more?

This post is prompted by four things

1. Reading an interview with a guy called Cal Newport who’s just published a book Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload.

2. Re-reading parts of The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. It was published back in ancient history (2010) but remains, I think, an important exploration of what the digital age is doing to us. It remains remarkably current.

3. Trying to find space to be creative: to think about a new writing idea: to clarify the concept; to identify the audience; to articulate a compelling rationale; to plan a structure; and – finally – to begin the writing process from the starting point of a blank (yes) screen. I’m reasonably disciplined and am used to writing, but I’ve found this way harder to do than usual. Of course there could be many explanations for my brain fog (isn’t much going on in there / haven’t got much to say / add your own insult) but I wonder if its connected to Lockdown and more enforced screen time, more time indoors etc?

4. Supervising an MA dissertation on church and the digital age

Both authors above, from different angles, are saying things probably most of us are experiencing. The all-encompassing encroachment of the digital age into every area of our existence has some serious downsides. The digitalisation of life is negatively impacting our thinking, creativity, work patterns and imaginations, amongst other things.

So, yes of course we can think, but are we thinking less well, less creatively, and less imaginatively than if we were not in a state of constant distraction and information overload?

Here’s a flavour of Newport’s argument

Modern knowledge workers communicate constantly. Their days are defined by a relentless barrage of incoming messages and back-and-forth digital conversations–a state of constant, anxious chatter in which nobody can disconnect, and so nobody has the cognitive bandwidth to perform substantive work. There was a time when tools like email felt cutting edge, but a thorough review of current evidence reveals that the “hyperactive hive mind” workflow they helped create has become a productivity disaster, reducing profitability and perhaps even slowing overall economic growth. Equally worrisome, it makes us miserable. Humans are simply not wired for constant digital communication.

His book is about freedom from the tyranny of email – relegating it to be a servant of effective work practices rather than the master. He argues that a solution has to go beyond the lone individual battling against a tide of haphazard communication – there needs to be a fundamental shift in workplace culture to put email in its place.

That master-servant analogy also applies to Carr’s book, indeed he uses it early on;

The computer screen bulldozes our doubts with its bounties and conveniences. It is so much our servant that it would seem churlish to notice that it is also our master. p. 4.

He means by this that the net is doing something to our brains. Its fragmented, hyperlinked and confetti-type nature is fundamentally alien to the way human thinking and culture have been developed and sustained. It has pulled us into the shallows, where we are mired in distracted thought.

Add on to this other unplanned consequences of the digital age that Carr discusses:

– vast amounts of available information does not necessarily make research and writing any better or any easier

– every time we follow suggested links we follows scripts written by others, limiting intuition, creativity and accidental discovery

– long hours in the electronic world keeps us, in effect, in an ‘urban’, busy, high-stimulus environment. Overwhelming research shows that our brains relax in natural environments. Spending time in nature leads to better cognitive functioning.

– a calm, attentive mind is also more empathetic. Human relationships are complex interactions of verbal and non-verbal communication. Take out the physical leads to a loss of empathy and a dehumanisation of those we engage with online. Since 2010 when Carr wrote this, the toxicity of the internet has poisoned public debate and polarised politics.

But my main focus is distraction so I’d better get back to that! Carr writes,

I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lost the thread, begin looking for something else to do. p.5

Which describes just about how I’m feeling at the moment. How about you? Does the following describe your experience?:

  • constantly connected
  • distracted
  • having multiple conversations on multiple platforms at the same time
  • spending most of the day looking at one sort of screen or another
  • feeling bombarded by images, texts, messages – many unsolicited and trivial
  • never feeling you have enough time
  • anxious if you misplace your phone and can’t rest until you have found it
  • struggling to concentrate
  • endlessly flicking over to email, news, netflix, whatsapp, FB or Twitter or Instagram
  • checking your social media accounts obsessively
  • at work feeling like you spend most of the time reacting, especially to haphazard emails
  • struggling to maintain boundaries of work and the rest of our life
  • used to read books but now find either little time or inclination to do so
  • used to read your Bible but now find either little time or inclination to do so
  • physically less active than you used to be?

If so, then you don’t need me to say there is a problem.

I’m old enough to be a digital migrant rather than a digital native. College studies and PhD research were all done ‘long-hand’. For the latter I had to travel 100 miles to the nearest university library to photocopy articles and hand write notes. I wrote it up in WordPerfect on a 386 running on MSDOS with (I think) a 256kb hard-drive and saved files on floppy disks. The internet hardly existed in any useful form. We lived in the country and had a terrible dial-up connection. No mobile phones, certainly no smartphone, no social media, no whatsapp – and not that much email.

So I had to smile reading Carr talking about what he had to do to actually write The Shallows. It’s an irony that, despite all the technological progress since the 1990s, he essentially retreated backwards to our lives in the Irish countryside pre the Web.

If I’m finding it so hard to concentrate, to stay focused on a line of thought, how in the world did I manage to write a few hundred pages of at least semicoherent thought? It wasn’t easy. When I began writing The Shallows … I struggled in vain to keep my mind fixed on the task. The Net provided, as always, a bounty of useful information and research tools, but its constant interruptions scattered my thoughts and words … It was clear big changes were in order … I moved with my wife from a highly connected suburb of Boston to the mountains of Colorado. There was no cell phone service .. the internet arrived through a relatively poky DSL connection. I cancelled my Twitter account, put my Facebook membership on hiatus, and mothballed my blog. Most important, I throttled back on my email application … I began to keep the program closed for most of the day.

The dismantling of my online life was far from painless. For months my synapses howled for the Net fix … But in time the cravings subsided, and I found myself able to type at my keyboard for hours on end or to read through a dense academic paper without my mind wandering. Some old disused neural circuits were springing back to life … I started to feel generally calmer and more in control of my thoughts – less like a lab rat pressing a lever and more like, well, a human being. My brain could breathe again. pp.198-99.

So what to do? I could suggest to my wife that we move back to the hills of Tipperary. She may like the idea but I suspect that the internet connections are a lot better than they used to be. Smartphones ain’t going away. And Carr’s move to the wilderness isn’t the most practical solution for 99.9% of people.

To start with, on a study day I’m starting to turn off email and phone. I’m prioritising reading physical books and articles rather than a screen. I get out for a walk, preferably along or near water. And if writing, to turn off wifi so it would take a bit more of an intentional decision to open up a web browser and check the news or something else irrelevant. It’s not a quick fix but it helps. And if Lockdown eases and I get the chance, I hope to get away to a cottage for a few days and disconnect from all distractions.

How about you?

Detoxing from the news this Brexit Day

On this ‘historic’ ‘B-Day’ – a post about the news.

I haven’t listened to RTE news (or any Irish news station) for a long time – I used to consume them voraciously. Neither do I watch RTE. Some years ago we got rid of the TV, so I don’t watch the news there or watch online (I confess that I’m rather delighted not to pay the licence fee. Long may it last before threatened action by the Govt to introduce a ‘household charge’ for RTE regardless of whether you ever watch it or not as an act of enforced patriotism to support ‘the national broadcaster’. There’s something Stalinesque about that argument Richard Bruton).

The first time I realised that an election had suddenly been called in Ireland (for 8 February rather than an expected date in May) was walking home one evening from work and seeing two guys up a ladder putting up election posters.

I joined Facebook for a day about 10 years ago, regretted it instantly and deleted my account (if such a thing is really possible).

I’ve looked at Twitter now and then. I can see the appeal; there are a lot of witty, smart people posting witty, smart things but it’s not for me. First of all, I’m not witty and smart. Second of all, is the relentless assault on the mind of information, ideas, campaigns, political opinions, controversies, trivia, moral outrage etc. It makes me feel like I do when I listen to or read a lot of news – which brings me to the main point of this post which is …

Consuming too much news* is toxic for the soul

(* I’m defining ‘news’ here broadly in terms of information about the world that we watch or listen to via TV or online. It includes social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram)

This is a personal opinion (and experience). I can’t say I have a high-minded and carefully researched philosophy to unpack for you. If you want to get theological, I accept that even the concept of the soul is debateable, but let’s leave that aside for another day.

Neither can I say I am consistent. I’m well aware of the irony of arguing this view by linking below to resources that are from newspapers and magazines. I’ve a particular morbid fascination for the unravelling of contemporary American politics that I have to resist getting lost in. I listen to radio news and read online newspapers, but I’m trying to wean myself off them bit by bit. I’m also aware that I am of a particular vintage which may colour my views of this new-fangled interweb thingy. But perhaps, just perhaps, experience counts for something.

Here are some voices I’ve come across that have resonated with my own experience in some way.

FIRST is the well-known research by Jean Twenge arguing that smartphones are causing a devastating mental health crisis. If you have not read this, you should. Related to this, today my Firefox browser tells me that adults spend about 4 hours on their smartphones per day and gives tips on how to cut down.p068myhz

SECOND is the witty and smart novelist and commentator Sarah Dunant talking about a growing explosive anger building within her for years from consuming news of one political disaster to another.If you have 10 minutes do listen, she is quite brilliant. Her response was to try a complete news detox. She went cold turkey,

“… turning your back on the whole seething noisy excruciating mess … cut the adrenaline feed .. I stopped listening to news bulletins, stopped accessing news websites, buying or reading any newspaper, participating in any social media. Nothing. How did it feel? Well some strange things happened. The passage of time, for instance, altered. It got slower. Or maybe that was just putting together all those little gaps where my fingers used to be on the keyboard or staring at the screen. In public, I noticed people more. I actually spent time looking at them. Almost willing them to look up from their phones, and if they did, I smiled … I am up to seventeen returned smiles. I have also taken to breathing, consciously that is …. To tone down the volume of thoughts, to try to be in the moment.”

She knows such a radical detox can’t last. But her experience of making human connection in is telling. We are embodied people. Love and relationship are innately physical, not virtual.

51n1jdr470l._sx314_bo1204203200_THIRD, is the Swiss writer Rolf Dobelli who has written Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life.

He can find out the important stuff that is going on without daily consumption of news bombarding him from every angle. He gave an interview in the Irish Times (yes, I know) earlier this month.  Consuming news neither helps us to understand what is going on nor does it help us make better decisions in our personal lives or work.

News consumption, he argues, breeds superficiality and short attention spans. Online ‘noise’ militates against sustained engagement with ideas. It is also overwhelmingly negative and fosters chronic stress, anxiety and has physical effects of lowering a person’s immune system.

Online news and social media works on clickbait. We not only waste time but get sucked into an ephemeral world where nothing is solid. News has become little more than a form of entertainment, desperately trying to catch the consumer’s fleeting attention.

And so the noise, and extreme opinion, gets louder and louder.

News, the Body, the Mind and Eschatology

So in 2020 I’m trying to turn the volume down and perhaps you might give it a go as well.

Perhaps this upcoming Lent, what about trying a total detox from the news and social media and see what happens?

Since we are embodied pepple, what about getting up from your chair, or lifting your eyes from the screen, and getting outside for walks in places of beauty? Take up Park Running on a Saturday morning – its’ a great detoxifer. If possible, talk to people rather than emailing or texting them. Spend the ‘extra’ time away from the screen in connecting to people ‘in the flesh’. Cook food and invite friends around. (Feel welcome to add other suggestions for an ‘embodied life’ in the comments if you wish).

9781540961136Finally, since this is a theological blog, there is a question here related to the mind and what we put in it.

Recently, Craig Keener has written a major book on the neglected topic of the Christian Mind – The Mind of the Spirit: Paul’s Approach to Transformed Thinking (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016).

At the heart of the renewing of the mind (Romans 12:1-2) is an eschatological dynamic. It is from the perspective of God’s future that a renewed mind is enabled to discern right choices in the present

1 Corinthians 2:15-16 and the mind of Christ versus human judgments

15 The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, 16 for,

“Who has known the mind of the Lord
    so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.

Colossians 3:1-2 and minds set on things above rather than things on earth cf Phil 3:19-20).

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

Philippiaans 4:8 needs to be heard and acted upon in these days of information overload

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

The ‘tryanny of the urgent’ within the never-ending cycle of news of human behaviour is relentlessly non-eschatological. It is also relentlessly anthropocentric. Both emphases are inimical to Christian faith in the triune God.

If Christians fill their minds with such content it is not hard to see what the results will be:

– a lack of prayer

– anxiety

– fear

– a loss of transcendence;

– obsession over human agency in the world

– a loss of hope

– anger (as with Sarah Dunant)

– an over-reliance on politics to fix the world

– a shrivelled sense of worship.

Perhaps it’s time to detox and use the body in better ways and fill the mind with better things.

Why I’m not on Facebook’s ‘behaviour modification empire’

Jaron Lanier

 

 

An excerpt of an interview on the digital future with Jaron Lanier, digital pioneer and inventor of virtual reality on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning.

In my view virtual reality can be thought of as some sort of ultimate destination for media. And what that means is it maximises the potential both for beauty and also for peril. I think it is possible to use virtual reality in very horrible ways, I think it could be the ultimate mind control device for instance. What we are seeing with society manipulated by social media today could be much worse if we don’t figure out how to protect ourselves whenever the era of virtual reality arrives …

[Q: asks if he uses social media himself]

Oh absolutely not .. social media is ..  I call them behaviour modification empires. I think they are manipulative. I think it is very foolish to participate in them …

[Q Asks why]

As you are doing these innocent things of keeping up with your football team or whatever it might be, what’s happening is that your every move is being analysed by algorithims and then very slight changes are being made to what you see and then tests are performed on how you respond. So that, for instance, showing the colour blue might get you to like something and then these capabilities for behaviour modification are then sold to third parties that you don’t know about in a very obscure and black fashion.

[Q Asks what different to traditional advertising]

We have crossed over a threshold that it is important to understand. Advertising or persuasion is one thing, that is a form of communication, but if you have a tight feedback loop you are entering into a behaviourist scientific experiment  in which the relationship between what you do and what stimulus you receive is very tightly coupled and can be adjusted to control you gradually. And that is different from advertising, that is why I call it behaviour modification.

[Q  Asks if social media then is like an experiement with rats in cage?]

Yes, that is precisely what is being done now.

… We must appeal to the better nature of everyone in silicon valley and everywhere else to simply cause this change. It might be a difficult transition but it simply must take place, it is a matter of the wellbeing of our species.

[Q Askswill better natures do it? Why would they?]

I don’t think it is about regulation primarily, it is about financial incentives. Right now the financial incentives for companies like Facebook .. the only financial incentive they have whatsoever is to manipulate the behaviour of their users for pay. However, there are other business plans. And, I think the key thing is not so much to regulate in detail … but if we can change the underlying financial incentives I think we can go a huge way to correcting these problems.

Trouble is Facebook is only one such behavioural modification empire … Google is ever harder to avoid.

You can read a fuller interview at the New York Times. Another exerpt on this topic from that interview:

“The whole internet thing was supposed to create the world’s best information resource in all of history,” he says. “Everything would be made visible. And instead we’re living in this time of total opacity where you don’t know why you see the news you see. You don’t know if it’s the same news that someone else sees. You don’t know who made it be that way. You don’t know who’s paid to change what you see. Everything is totally obscure in a profound way that it never was before.

“And the belief system of Silicon Valley is so thick that my friends at Facebook simply still really believe that the answer to any problem is to do more of what they already did, that they’re optimizing the world.

“The Facebook business model is mass behavior modification for pay. And for those who are not giving Facebook money, the only — and I want to emphasize, the only, underlined and in bold and italics — reward they can get or positive feedback is just getting attention. And if you have a system where the only possible prize is getting more attention, then you call that system Christmas for Asses, right? It’s a creep-amplification device.

“Once Facebook becomes ubiquitous, it’s a sort of giant protection racket, where, if you don’t pay them money, then someone else will pay to modify the behavior to your disadvantage, so everyone has to pay money just to stay at equilibrium where they would have been otherwise,” he says. “I mean, there’s only one way out for Facebook, which is to change its business model. Unless Facebook changes, we’ll just have to trust Facebook for any future election result. Because they do apparently have the ability to change them. Or at least change the close ones.”

And towards the end of that interview he talks about the impact Facebook and other behavioural modification systems are having on personality and politics – both liberal and Trump.

“If you’re a mark of social media, if you’re being manipulated by it, one of the ways to tell is if there’s a certain kind of personality quality that overtakes you,” he says. “It’s been called the snowflake quality. People criticize liberal college kids who have it, but it’s exactly the same thing you see in Trump. It’s this kind of highly reactive, thin-skinned, outraged single-mindedness. I think one way to think of Trump, even though he is a con man and he is an actor and he’s a master manipulator and all that, in a sense he’s also a victim. I’ve met him a few times over 30 years. And what I think I see is someone who has moved from kind of a New York character who was in on his own joke to somebody who is completely freaked out and outraged and feeling like he is on the verge of a catastrophe every second. And so my theory about that is that he was ruined by social media.”

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

Learning from Rory and maintaining vocation in a googleized world

Golfers, being hopeless optimists that their once-off best-ever score really represents their ‘normal’ game, are always desperately hoping and searching for a ‘secret’ of success; some new club, or thought or drill that will give them that edge – and make them a wee bit more like the pros on TV. [Hence they are endlessly suckered into spending hundreds on the latest cool driver or new fangled putter. Heck, you used to be able to buy whole sets of clubs for what one high-tech driver costs these days – but I digress.]

Anyway, this is to explain the numerous jokes out there about ditching the wife / girlfriend as a route to golfing nirvana, for it sure seems to have ‘worked’ for Rory. The moment the lovely Caroline departed, Rory’s fortunes have soared to new heights. 4 victories including 2 Major Championships, the WGC at FIrestone and the British PGA at Wentworth (flagship event of the European Tour), all done with stunning flair and breathtaking talent, have swept him back to the top of the world rankings. Once again, the statistical parallels (4 Majors by 25 etc) are being drawn with Nicklaus and Woods and you don’t more exalted company in the golfing pantheon than that.

As the wunderkind says himself, he’s been able to devote himself single mindedly to his profession in a way he hasn’t done before (or maybe not in the same sustained way). There is a new steel in Rory and a determined focus that seems to have released his remarkable free-flowing confidence to a point where he has just swept all the very best tough and prodigiously talented pros in the world aside. Over the last three weeks it has been a joy to watch  Rory give his very best (especially for a Holywood Golf Club man!).

All this sort of links to musings on technology, Google, and distraction in a world of Too Much Information (TMI).

It was significant that after his first 2014 win at Wentworth in May, Rory said he’d put away the laptop and switched off his phone (well at least for a while). Not being a celebrity world-famous golfer (or blogger, or theologian etc!) I can’t begin to imagine the pervasive clamour for your attention from a seemingly infinite number of people, both in the flesh and globally via the digital superhighway.

In a way that Nicklaus, and perhaps not even Woods, had to deal with, Rory lives in and has to negotiate living his life transparently under the fish-eye lens of social media and a voracious global media. As a ‘digital native’ he has participated freely in that world (in a way that a digital-settler like me can’t really get). But I wonder if his remarkable burst of success is in part the result of putting the babble of that ‘unreal’ world to one side and focusing on his ‘vocation’. Rather than it controlling him, perhaps he’s gained some degree of control over it. I hope so – and if so Rory, keep going! For I suspect it will be his ability to pursue his ‘vocation’ that will determine how close to Woods and Nicklaus he gets. As Roger Federer says, there is a lot of background ‘noise’ that is best ignored.

It is people with a clear sense of purpose and a determination to pursue their personal mission who tend to make the greatest impact in life. That focus is not only mental but physical. Rory has put in intensive work preparing his body to be in peak condition to thrash the ball repeatedly way over 300 yrds. Focus, discipline and training – these are words that come to mind with Rory these days.

Paul of course used sporting metaphors to describe his single-minded determination to preach the gospel whatever the cost.

25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. 1 Cor 9:25-7

Now I suspect every ‘age’ has bemoaned technological change and how it will ruin the (better) ways things were. I’m not going there. Take GOOGLE. I love Google search, Google Maps and reluctantly can’t do without gmail (prefer Outlook). Google docs are great for team interaction and I’m getting into Google Scholar. Google earth is fun. And Google books are deadly handy to get a preview of a work that you don’t have access to.

What Google does is bring the world to our fingertips in a way unimaginable to any previous human generation. Google’s mission statement is to organise the world’s information and make  it universally accessible and useful – a vastly ambitious goal which it is fulfilling brilliantly, rapidly and rather creepily. Its mysterious algorithims work invisibly to give us instantaneous results to any search. We have access to infinite information without getting off our derriéries.

But to what purpose? How can we process and filter TMI without drowning under a tsunami of data?

Have you ever found yourself spending far more time than you expected when planning to buy something fairly mundane? Maybe somewhere to stay on a trip? After looking at Tripadvisor and reading 25 (conflicting) reviews, you try Hotel.Com and a couple of other sites to get different options. One night’s stay becomes a navigation of 50 people’s opinions …all very interesting, often useful but also a time-consuming distraction.

And let’s not be naive, Google isn’t in business for fun, however much fun it supposedly is to be a ‘Googler’. Its main source of income is advertising and that stream of income is the driving force behind Google’s ‘open information’ culture. It’s been said that one of the dangers of the Web 3.0 is how it serves us. We are at the centre of our universe as Google serves us up with all our possible desires based on its predictive knowledge of our online habits. And I’m not going to get into Google’s virtual omniscience about everything you and I do on the web ….

And that reference to the French posterior is no small point. continuous googling is passive activity. Remember this wee saying ? As we spend more and more hours sitting looking at a screen we become fatter and and more unhealthy. There is an inherent mind / body dualism in the Google universe that echoes Gnosticism. The abstract (information, data) is what really matters. The body is relevant simply to tap buttons and click a mouse and soon I’m sure that won’t even be necessary either. But we are not disembodied minds, we are physical beings; mind, body, spirit.

There is no small irony in me writing this on a computer screen in WordPress that I opened with Google. I’m not anti-technology. But I do wonder how can Christians learn from Rory and pursue vocation through focus, discipline and training in a Googleized world?

How do you? Where is the googlized world distracting you and seducing you into running aimlessly? Where are you wasting your time in an e-world, consuming time and energy in trivia? How much time do you sit passively consuming someone else’s work via a screen? Do you suffer from paralysis by analysis due to too much information? How often do you just ‘google it’ to get the answer rather than think and pray about a situation?

What can you and I do to counter a sort of creeping Google gnosticism that relegates physical exercise and activity to a lower order behaviour?

Comments, as ever, welcome.