Too Much Internet Crack

I hate to say it, but it looks like I've been degraded to having to write what might be called a filler/fluff piece.

If you haven't already read my first post to this blog, Distraction, Surveillance, Peak Oil and the End of the Internet, then let me quickly point out that I spent five and a half years mostly not using the Internet (you can read about that in the post if you'd like). But since I've gotten back online (about a year and a half ago), my ability to concentrate and work on my manuscript – be it sitting down for several hours to read a book or work with pen and paper – has been decimated and has been getting progressively worse.

It's all pretty much come to a head these past couple of weeks, particularly as I've become rather active in trying to get this blog out there to up its numbers. In the process, the spare iPhone 4 which I was recently given (of which I don't have a SIM card inside) has been getting souped up with an ever-growing trove of APPs to accommodate all this. On top of my email APP (which, admittedly, doesn't make my "phone" vibrate too often), I've got an APP to connect to cPanel (to access my website's control panel), an APP to code from my "phone" just in case my site needs quick fixing (I do not own or want a computer to do that from), an APP to check out my website's analytics, an APP for my recently made discovery of Reddit, and I just signed up to Skype a month ago to do my first podcast interview and so now have an APP for that as well.

On top of that all I've also got an Amazon APP, an eBay APP, banking APPs, Trade Me and Gumtree APPs, library APPs, a Twitter APP, a Soundcloud APP (to listen to Doomstead Diner podcasts) and more. Seeing how I don't have a phone number and can only be reached by email, I was kind of required recently to get APPs for WeChat and LINE (the Asian equivalents of WhatsApp, if you even know what that is – and if you don't, I'd suggest not bothering to find out). But let me tell you, this is not APPtastic.

What I was supposed to be doing the past while, on top of working on my manuscript, was writing a post on democracy and fossil fuels, and another about my new little pet theory on collapse. But it just wouldn't happen. As both of them got put off for another day, and another day, and another day, I ended up, well, here. Deadline time with neither of the posts having gotten anywhere beyond their titles being written on the top of a page.

I've read Nicolas Carr's book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, so I'm quite aware of what's going on here. Simply put, my brain's gone into hyperactive mode and I'm in constant need of stimulation. What doesn't help is that I'm prone to devouring information, and so quite capable of being an info-junkie. I've been reading up and up and up on the latest goings on with Greece and the Eurozone, the proxy war which it seems the US started with Russia, the oh-so-ever imminent collapse of the petrodollar (okay, I usually skip those articles now), a multitude of various other shenanigans, and how they're all tied in to the fracking bubble, peak oil, and, simply put, energy. And just as the drama never stops, nor do the stories and facts and figures and data and so forth. Sometimes I get the sinking feeling that I've replaced film and television for the soap opera of geopolitics.

Anyway, upon reading the comment section of John Michael Greer's blog just a couple of days ago, I came across a link to an article called Why Can't We Read Anymore? by Hugh McGuire. It was a good read, pretty much along the lines of those already mentioned by Carr in The Shallows. As was reiterated for me, what's going on is that each new hit of information sets off a rush in my brain which makes me "feel good." And wanting to continually "feel good," I incessantly end up clicking that next link, re-checking my analytics, scouring for updates of whatever kind, etc. In other words, this trove of information via the Internet is my crack, and with my newfound iPhone, a very accessible source of crack at that. However, even though I'm completely aware of what's going on, there seems to be little I can do to refrain from taking that next hit.

Anecdotes aside, neuroscience studies have shown that new information incites a surge of dopamine to the brain. Seeing how the brain is very "plastic" and can be readily "reprogrammed" (even in old age), give it enough of those dopamine hits and you change it at a biological level. That is, it gets used to the "feel good" sensation of all those dopamine hits and so increasingly craves them and compels you to seek them out.

In other words, for the past year and a half (and especially the past four months since I've gotten that SIM card-bereft iPhone) I've been remapping the neural pathways in my brain to seek out dopamine hits. A vibrating "phone" notifying me of a new email? Bring on the dopamine! A check on my website analytics? Can you say dopamine!? A tweet of mine mentioning my lastest blog post has been re-tweeted? Hey look, more dopamine! Refresh those website's analytics again? Dopamine?

That all being said, I should point out that I can be a rather disciplined person and don't like pawning off my responsibilities and shortcomings on invisible goblins. Nonetheless, and as Carr put it in his article that preceded The Shallows, Is Google Making us Stupid?,

the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s [that] media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

Click, tap, click, tap, clickety-tap. While we're grippingly relayed prophecies by the techno-evangelists that all this hyperactivity and multi-tasking increases our productivity, the fact of the matter is that in various ways the opposite is the truth – such things as multi-tasking results in less and less getting done, and at lower levels of quality.

Granted, different people respond to different stimulants in different ways, so I don't state this as a general prognosis of everybody's situation. Nonetheless, I know I'm not the only one. As Carr also points out,

I'm not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I'm reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in 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 often starts to drift after 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. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

So seeing how I need to get on with my "deep reading" so I can complete my manuscript (and get those blog posts done on time!), something needs to be done here. Although I've got a feeling that I will one day be quitting the Internet again, that's at least a few years away, and I certainly can't be doing that now.

Fortunately, mentioning my deteriorating abilities in passing to John Michael Greer on his blog's comment section the other day, I unexpectedly got some excellent advice: go on a media fast. So, upon tying up a few loose ends over the next week or so, that's exactly the middle path I'll soon be taking. On top of saying bye-bye to my analytics monitoring and vibrating notices during the day, and since I gave up film and television about a decade ago, this largely means abstaining from reading articles on the Internet. (I have however been giving a few mp3 listens to a song on my iPhone by my mate here in New Zealand, and since I haven't actually played a piece of music in about a decade either, I'll be scrapping that as well.)

I don't, however, know how long this is going to last for. Yes, I'll be missing out on all the petrodollar-boy's cries of wolf (the wolf does of course arrive, although I don't think that day is in the immediate future), but if I'm to gain some control over my mind's workings then I'm going to have to lay off all those clicks, taps, refreshes and vibrations for a while. Once I've got some control over myself again (and I guess "remapped" a few things up there), only then will I go about delving in again, within some sort of predetermined limits.

Fortunately, there's most certainly hope. As McGuire put it,

The shocking thing was how quickly my mind adapted to accommodate reading books again. I had expected to fight for that concentration – but I didn’t have to fight. With less digital input (no pre-bed TV, especially), extra time (no TV, again), and without a tempting digital device near at hand... there was time and space for my mind to settle into a book.

What a wonderful feeling it was.

I am reading books now more than I have in years. I have more energy, and more focus than I've had for ages. I have not fully conquered my digital dopamine addiction, though, but it's getting there. I think reading books is helping me retrain my mind for focus.

As a passing curiosity: If the fracking bubble pops and you're not on the Internet to read about it, does it still make a sound?

Update 06/05/2015: Although I've yet to start the media fast, I haven't touched that iPhone since I put up this post. Talk about making a difference! As I'm now noticing, perhaps the media fast isn't needed after all, but just the jettisoning of the portable wifi device.

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Comments (4)

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Bob Wise
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May 2015
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Good luck with your media fast and writing. When you break your fast, you might consider approaching the problem my way: with a desktop computer, keyboard and all. They're so unpopular now, you can probably get one for peanuts. I started working on a computer long before the internet, and I associate them with work, so sitting down in front of the monitor in a good posture actually inspires me to start writing. I dislike most hand-held devices, as well as television. I sit and read while my wife watches TV. I do look up now and them for Dancing with the Stars -- the women are magnificent -- but generally it's an intrusion I try to ignore, sometimes by going to another room. Never had the same problem as McGuire, I've always been able to concentrate on books. But I have a backlog of "should reads" on my Kindle, nonfiction books on significant topics that I couldn't seem to get into. Maybe I should stick to novels on the Kindle and get the nonfictions in hard copy.
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Shawn
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Apr 2015
Just a note to say "ditto" this experience of what the internet/computer blue screen does to one's brain, the ability to focus, the ability to "think slow and deep". I used to be a deep reader, now I am a "scanner" it seems. I am not sure what percent of the problem is the dopamine rush of new ideas, and what percent is the problem with the back lit screen and late evening reading. However, one week off on holiday with no computer and I can feel the mental difference.

I would go on long internet holiday as you are, but I am now trying to very quickly come up to speed on key issues covered in your blog and others like it and I can use the variety of topics I hit daily to build my mental scaffolding upon which I hang ideas. The podcasts from Extraenvironmentalist, et al. are great for car rides. I use Youtube for climate change videos from scientist etc. to give me a real time understanding of that issue that perhaps books cannot. And of course, I need my daily and weekly fix of thinking from my favorite key bloggers :-)

For now, I am trying to stop using the computer by 7PM. And to read more books in that slower deeper reading mode.

One thing I would like to figure out, if anyone has a suggestion, is how I can read PDF's etc. on a larger Kindle-type gray screen. On the Kindle itself reading PDF's is clunky especially for academic papers.

Cheers.
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Aug 2014
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Bob: Yeah, I'm wondering if I really should have this restricted-to-wifi iPhone any longer, now that I've pretty much finished using it to build the mobile website for this blog. It's just way too accessible. But a desktop? I don't know. It's an appliance that if I could I'd like to not have. So far I've been rather fortunate to have a computer – or at least access to one – fall into my lap whenever I've needed one, and for a while now I've been in cities with libraries nearby. As well, and perhaps I'm the odd one out here, but I don't actually write on computers (besides emails and these blog replies). I do it all by hand, type it out, print out the latest draft, then edit on top of that by hand, rinse and repeat. I usually go through several cycles of this.

However, I hope to not always be in a big city, which means libraries aren't just down the street, and fortuitous access to whatever other computers wouldn't be as plentiful. Maybe by then I'd have to start up some Amish-style, pay-computer booth on the side of the country road. Or stick the desktop in the barn. ;-)

(Not that I have a barn – yet.)

And I've never read anything on a Kindle or other eReader, but if I had to choose how to go about it, I'd go for the fiction on the Kindle and nonfiction in hard copy, as you suggested. I make (pencil) notes quite often, flip back and forth and such, so I couldn't see reading nonfiction any other way.
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Aug 2014
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Shawn: Your notion of "trying to stop using the computer by 7PM" is exactly along the lines of what I'm going to end up doing once I reset my noggin. Or perhaps an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening? I'll see. And yes, although I haven't looked into it, I've briefly, uhh, scanned over material regarding reading upon back lit screens at late hours. Perhaps I should read up on that a bit more as I decide how to set my new limits.

And like you say, I too "need my daily and weekly fix of thinking from my favorite key bloggers." I don't know about you, but I've pretty much got only one person (an hour train's ride away, while I'm still in New Zealand) whom I readily talk to about the issues covered in this blog, so besides him, the Internet, and books, I've got nothing. And as much as I like reading, living with your nose buried in books isn't my notion of "fun."

All the best with your coming up to speed on these "key issues."

p.s. I do like to give a plug for a good book every now and then. One of my favorites, covering a lot of this stuff, is Andrew Nikiforuk's The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude. Maybe I should review it as a blog post one day.

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