Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Attention / Distraction (page 1 of 28)

“What people are angry about… is that we no longer feel in control of the technology in our lives”

In my book The Distraction Addiction I talked about how humans have evolved to have incredibly powerful relationships with technologies, starting with hand axes a million years ago, and continuing down to the present; how our relationships with technologies are among the most powerful we have; and that the challenge with today’s technologies was not to learn to live without them, but to learn to use them better. This meant recognizing the power of those relationships; thinking more deeply about them; and re-learning how to use them well, rather than being used by them.

Arianna Huffington has a piece about “The Anger at the Heart of the Facebook Hearings” that echoes this:

What people are angry about, and what’s truly fueling this moment, is that we no longer feel in control of the technology in our lives. That feeling of losing control has been building steadily for the last several years, as our lives have become both more dominated by technology and more dependent on technology. It’s the feeling that the pace of our lives, and the next thing on our to-do list, is no longer up to us. It comes via the endless screens and algorithms we’re immersed in. And we know that the feeling of autonomy is one of the single most important factors in our happiness. But we’re feeling less and less autonomous.

I think this has a lot truth to it, though there is real ill-feeling toward companies, not just technologies and our relationships with them. Control is one of the things we instinctively use to measure the trustworthiness of a technology; it’s also something we need in order to use them well.

So it make sense that the sense that a company is designing its product to elude our control should inspire suspicion and hostility. We’ve coevolved with technologies, and expect to be able to use them to extend our cognitive and physical abilities; and when that relationship is broken, it’s a big problem for us.

“he failed to do [his job] because he was distracted by tweeting”

Hollywood, California Adventure

So the next time you think you can handle checking your email while driving, think back to the 2016 Oscars when La La Land was incorrectly announced as best picture instead of Moonlight. As the Hollywood Reporter explains in their new “Oral History of Oscar’s Epic Best Picture Fiasco,” it all came down to digital distraction. Continue reading

Music to work to

I listen to music almost constantly through the day, and when I was working on REST I did some reading about music and the brain, and the different kinds of music people work to. It helped me make some sense of the music I listen to through the day, and why certain kinds work and others don’t.

At the most general level, creative people listen to music to drown out other auditory distractions; or to improve their mood, focus, or some other emotion. (If you’re in a boring job, you might listen to music to pass the time, which is a different kind of situation.) The research says that for most people,

  • Instrumental music is less distracting than vocal music, because we have a hard time not paying attention to voices and lyrics (especially problematic if you’re writing).
  • Simpler music is good for when you mainly need to focus and aren’t trying to generate a sense of urgency, or feel upbeat.
  • After that, things get more complicated and idiosyncratic. We all have different musical histories; different kinds of music that we find energizing versus distracting; and different needs through the day.

For example, let me share what I listen to, illustrated by Spotify playlists. I often get up to write between 5 and 5:30, and the purpose of music in the morning is to help me stay in a calm, walking-up-but-not-quite-there state. For that, something like the Yundi Chopin nocturnes is just the thing.

I also like Gould’s recordings of the Bach Goldberg variations (or the Calefax Reed Quintet’s arrangement of the variations), or the Emerson String Quartet’s recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier. I also like the Budapest String Quartet’s late 1930s recordings of the Beethoven String Quartets: I find the old, slightly shaky sound to be very romantic in a black-and-white, Europe-before-the-storm kind of way.

During the day, I usually want something that has more spark to it. When I was writing REST, I listened to a lot of movie soundtracks. Here are two:

and

The thing I find great about movie music is that the good stuff is great, but it’s almost always the case that composers have written music that’s meant to stir and energize, but not distract, viewers: the music is meant to underline and accentuate a scene, not call attention to itself. When I’m writing, this is perfect: I want the emotional charge, and just enough of my attention diverted so my creative mind has more freedom to operate.

Then there are times when I need more of an energy boost. For that, I have another playlist that’s highly idiosyncratic.

What this highlights is that while there are some general rules about what makes for good music to focus to, your own musical history and the associations you have with particular songs also matter. “Regiment,” the Brian Eno/David Byrne collaboration, is from an album I discovered in college; I’v loved Pat Metheny’s work since high school; Rob Dougan’s “Clubbed to Death” and Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up” are from the Matrix soundtrack; Moby’s “Extreme Ways” is used at the end of the Jason Bourne movies, which I love.

I might also listen to Led Zeppelin, again because it’s music that I know really well, and because generally Robert Plant is incomprehensible so the words aren’t so hard to tune out.

So don’t assume that there’s a perfect playlist that works for you, or music that will be guaranteed to put you in a super-productive frame of mind (requiring employees to dance to Pharrell William’s “Happy” will NOT make them more productive). Rather, you should think about what you want to get out of the music (focus, more energy, or whatever); think about what you like; and then experiment. Don’t copy my choices, or anyone else’s. Make your own.

The “Think Differently About Kids” letter

Baby and iPhone

JANA Partners and Calstrs have published a pretty amazing open letter calling for Apple to rethink its design of its products, with the aim of making them less addictive to kids.

I suspect it’s published elsewhere, but the original is at Think Differently About Kids, and is the first manifesto I’ve ever seen that requires you acknowledge a disclaimer first.

There are a couple interesting thing here. The first is the argument they make that helping people be more mindful in their technology use, and developing more subtle and useful tools for helping parents control their kids’ device use, would establish Apple as market leader– or rather confirm it as the leader it already is:

we believe there is a clear need for Apple to offer parents more choices and tools to help them ensure that young consumers are using your products in an optimal manner.  By doing so, we believe Apple would once again be playing a pioneering role, this time by setting an example about the obligations of technology companies to their youngest customers.  As a company that prides itself on values like inclusiveness, quality education, environmental protection, and supplier responsibility, Apple would also once again be showcasing the innovative spirit that made you the most valuable public company in the world.

Later, they argue that Apple should get on this because the zeitgeist is shifting:

It is true that Apple’s customer satisfaction levels remain incredibly high, which is no surprise given the quality of its products. However, there is also a growing societal unease about whether at least some people are getting too much of a good thing when it comes to technology, which at some point is likely to impact even Apple given the issues described above. In fact, even the original designers of the iPhone user interface and Apple’s current chief design officer have publicly worried about the iPhone’s potential for overuse, and there is no good reason why you should not address this issue proactively.

As a parent of two quite technology-happy kids, it often struck me how few good tools exist for helping parents help kids learn to use digital devices and social media well.

My nephew at the Apple Store, Soho

At the same time, I think this is one of those things that’s really hard to implement: it’s easy to talk about wanting kids to use technology better or be less attached to it, for example, but hard to design for that. Further, lots of the problems we worry about with “technology” are really social problems, or human ones. And I think that technology companies are just as addicted to persuasive design as their users: it feels like too easy a toolkit to use, and there are too many examples of companies that.

Still, after years of talking about technology, addiction, and distraction, it’s good to see this getting some traction.

“Exploitation is encoded into the systems we are building”

Writer and artist James Bridle has a long, but rather amazing and disturbing, piece arguing that “Something is wrong on the internet.” Specifically he’s talking about how kids’ videos on YouTube have turned super-strange and -dark, thanks to the weird profitability of kids’ videos, their low production standards, efforts to hit the right SEO and keyword notes, etc.. The result, he says, is that

Automated reward systems like YouTube algorithms necessitate exploitation in the same way that capitalism necessitates exploitation, and if you’re someone who bristles at the second half of that equation then maybe this should be what convinces you of its truth. Exploitation is encoded into the systems we are building, making it harder to see, harder to think and explain, harder to counter and defend against. Not in a future of AI overlords and robots in the factories, but right here, now, on your screen, in your living room and in your pocket.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the future of automation and work, and whether it’s possible to avoid the kinds of race-to-the-bottom, exterminate-the-worker imperatives that seem to be implicit in so many automation projects today, so this is a bracing argument.

It goes on, after walking through a number of examples of videos that are literally nightmarish:

To expose children to this content is abuse. We’re not talking about the debatable but undoubtedly real effects of film or videogame violence on teenagers, or the effects of pornography or extreme images on young minds, which were alluded to in my opening description of my own teenage internet use. Those are important debates, but they’re not what is being discussed here. What we’re talking about is very young children, effectively from birth, being deliberately targeted with content which will traumatise and disturb them, via networks which are extremely vulnerable to exactly this form of abuse. It’s not about trolls, but about a kind of violence inherent in the combination of digital systems and capitalist incentives. It’s down to that level of the metal.

This, I think, is my point: The system is complicit in the abuse.

And right now, right here, YouTube and Google are complicit in that system. The architecture they have built to extract the maximum revenue from online video is being hacked by persons unknown to abuse children, perhaps not even deliberately, but at a massive scale. I believe they have an absolute responsibility to deal with this, just as they have a responsibility to deal with the radicalisation of (mostly) young (mostly) men via extremist videos — of any political persuasion. They have so far showed absolutely no inclination to do this, which is in itself despicable. However, a huge part of my troubled response to this issue is that I have no idea how they can respond without shutting down the service itself, and most systems which resemble it. We have built a world which operates at scale, where human oversight is simply impossible, and no manner of inhuman oversight will counter most of the examples I’ve used in this essay.

I spent a little time looking at some of these videos, and they are beyond weird. They combine Second Life-level clunky animation; the kinds of repetition that adults find irritating and toddlers love; that distinctive kids’ music; and extremely strange cuts and changes of scene. About four minutes into one of the videos, the scene shifted from a totally anodyne house to a graveyard in which familiar toys sing a song about how sugar is bad, only they have flayed zombie heads; it was exactly the kind of thing that your mind would cook up as a nightmare.

Honolulu fights ‘smartphone zombies’

More of Kauai
Just enjoy the sunset!

The city of Honolulu has passed a law that “targets ‘smartphone zombies’,” people crossing the street while using their smartphones and not looking where they’re going:

“We hold the unfortunate distinction of being a major city with more pedestrians being hit in crosswalks, particularly our seniors, than almost any other city in the county,” [Honolulu mayor Kirk] Caldwell said.

The ban will go into effect in late October and will run from $15 to $99, depending on the severity of the offense.

I was recently in Hawaii, though on a different island, and was struck by how reflexive checking phones in restaurants, taking selfies, etc. has become. Even in an island paradise, many of us feel the need to keep our phones out and active all the time.

When the world doesn’t provide us stimulation, it’s offering us a gift: More on creativity and boredom

More people seem to be getting interested in boredom. Now the World Economic Forum has a video about the value of letting your mind do nothing at all:

It’s kind of a follow-up to a piece by Silicon Valley author Jordan Rosenfeld about why we should “Learn how to be bored instead” of constantly reaching for our phones during down moments. Since writing The Distraction Addiction and Rest, I’ve become more of a fan of taking those moments and just doing nothing at all, staring into space and letting my mind wander.

Of course, what Rosenfeld and the World Economic Forum are talking about isn’t really boredom, per se, but rather treating those moments when you don’t have to focus on anything– that time in line at the store, for example– as an opportunity and positive thing, rather than a negative space defined by an absence of stimulus. As I argued in my Maria Shriver Sunday paper article this weekend, boredom isn’t a state that’s determined by the world around us. It’s conjured by us.

Boredom isn’t like a thermometer that measures how dull our environment is. it’s a more complex reaction of our selves and our surroundings. We might be bored by a movie that we’ve seen many times; we might find a conversation at a reunion dull because our lives and our classmates’ have gone in very different directions; or we might find a place dull because we were dragged there by our stupid parents who think stupid Renaissance paintings are cool. All kinds of things can be boring, as this piece of graffiti in Oxford reminds us:

Capitalism is Boring

Still, the underlying idea that when the world doesn’t offer us stimulation, it’s offering us a gift, is one that is worth repeating, even if I think we need a better term than “boredom” to describe it.

 

On rest and value of boredom

Over the weekend I had a short piece in Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper, which was dedicated to “the benefits of boredom.” My piece explains why “Rest and Boredom Are Scientifically Beneficial for Your Brain:”

We treat boredom as something that we can banish from our lives, like smallpox or polio. But boredom isn’t a disease. We don’t catch it. We cause it ourselves. Boredom is a state of mind, a reaction to the world rather than a reflection of the world. Sure, we can be bored standing in line or waiting around for a delayed plane. But we can also be bored of a once-favorite haunt, or under-stimulated by a too-familiar restaurant. Teenagers are geniuses at weaponizing boredom: kids are brilliant at being stubbornly bored by this dumb thing in this dumb place that their dumb parents have dragged them to.

This suggests that we can modulate even control, our reactions to situations that normally trigger boredom. But why should we? In a world where we can binge-watch television in line at the grocery store, why should we ever let those empty moments stay empty?

The answer is, those moments when we don’t have to focus on anything in particular, and can allow our minds to roam free, are actually quite valuable.

I first realized that boredom was a state of mind that we could control, and that when we’re young we weaponize it, when I was at the British Museum with my kids. We were at the Rosetta Stone, which of course is one of the great jewels in the Museum’s collection, and one of the single most important archaeological artifacts in all of history.

From today's visit to the British Museum

There was another family there, and while the parents were explaining why the Stone was important (and by implication why it was cool that they were there), one of the kids Was. Not. Having. It. He was determined to stay disengaged, no matter what. (It’s not the child in the striped shirt. That’s my son, six years ago!) It struck me just how forcefully the kid seemed to want to be unimpressed, and wanted his parents to know just how stupid the whole thing was. I doubted that he could come right out and say it, but conspicuous boredom made his feelings pretty clear.

Rosetta Stone

This is probably something I did plenty of myself when I was younger. Of course there were times when I legitimately felt like there was nothing for me to do– this was my default state from roughly third grade through high school– but there were probably times when I was bored to make a point. For kids, who don’t have a lot of choice in their lives, the ability to be bored is probably a useful form of rebellion: you can drag me to all these places, but you can’t make me like it, even if it’s something really cool.

But like most of us, as I’ve gotten older and busier, I now have a greater appreciation for the value of those periods when I have nothing I need to focus on; it’s less something to flee from, and a little more a luxury. It can even be good for you.

Smartphone distraction and pedestrian deaths

Time to update this poster.

Distracted Driving

A new study by the Governors Highway Safety Association finds that in the first half of 2016, pedestrian fatalities reached a two-decade high. More people are driving in a more active economy, and more people are walking and running for exercise; but as The Guardian reports, those aren’t the only reasons the numbers are up.

But researchers say they think the biggest factor may be more drivers and walkers distracted by cellphones and other electronic devices, although that’s hard to confirm.

Increases in driving and walking aren’t as dramatic as the rise in fatalities; smartphone use has skyrocketed; and areas where people do more walking are areas that have seen the highest increases. All of this suggests that distracted driving, and distracted walking, are the main drivers of the increase.

Toy-free play

The Atlantic has a piece about the German practice of putting away toys in kindergarten for a period in order to encourage children to learn to rely more on their own imaginations and social abilities when they play– and develop the inner resources to resist addictions later in life.

It grew out of an addiction study group… in the 1980s. The group included people who had worked directly with adult addicts and determined that, for many, habit-forming behavior had roots in childhood. To prevent these potential seeds of addiction from ever being planted, the researchers ultimately decided to create a project for kitas and kindergartens, which in Germany typically serve children ages 3 to 6, and remove the things children sometimes use to distract themselves from their negative feelings: toys.

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