off: attention, distraction, and the interwebz

on thursday and friday, my two days off, my activities included:

  • reading three entire books and several graphic novels
  • reading half each of four other books
  • (and incidentally discovering that i read around 2 pages a minute)
  • watching several hours of LOST
  • writing around 1600 words (not including this blog post)
  • meeting a friend for lunch
  • running some errands
  • running into several other friends during the course of lunch and errands
  • loafing
  • sending and responding to some emails (but pointedly NOT looking at my work inbox)

and some random other things — what is more interesting than continuing the laundry list of things i did is to note the one thing i did not: using Twitter.

every now and then, i make a point to take a day or so off from Twitter and work email. some folks will go on week- or month-long (or indefinite, in the case of one person i know) vacations from the web, and most of them forego all email as well as social media, RSS, surfing, etc. for me, though, i’ve picked my poison, and it has subsumed almost all other time-sucks. Twitter is my feed-reader and my StumbleUpon; if i’m not using it, my inclination to do much else on the web, aside from the occasional email, disappears almost entirely. i might look up something in particular, but i’m not much of a browser on my own.

and, by odd coincidence, one of the books i read in its entirety was THE SHALLOWS, by Nicholas Carr, which you’ve probably been hearing about. in it he discusses extensively the ways in which our brains are changed by the technologies we use, with particular emphasis on “the Net”, as he refers to it. (a word choice, by the way, which puzzles me. the Web is used, at least in my circles, far more often; for some reason all i could think of whenever i saw that was early 90s movies like that one with Sandra Bullock, or Hackers.) and i have to say that i give myself a lot of credit for NOT live-tweeting that book — it would have been a delicious irony. but i digress.

the point is, i was already thinking about why i take breaks from my chosen technology of distraction, and Carr gave me a lot more to think about. and what i came up with was this. there are pros and cons to the mental processes that long and deep attention require, and pros and cons to those for shallow and fluid attention. and i choose both.

it’s probably true that i would not have accomplished that list, plus whatever else i left off, if i had been on Twitter during my ‘weekend’. at the very least i would have lost some time, and at the most i would never have entered into the mental states that promote feats of sustained writing or reading. and Twitter is the ultimate example of what Carr is talking about — quick, real-time, ceaseless, hyperlinked, and innately distracting. but, on days at which i sit in front of a computer (sometimes for extended periods) anyway, Twitter provides not only social interaction (especially on slow days) but increases my knowledge of and connection to my industry. i can joke around and distract myself, true, but i can also get questions answered, track who is reading what and why, get a feel for which publishers are excited about which books; you get the idea.

perhaps, going forward, i will regiment my Twitter time a little more actively, and intersperse non-computer tasks into my to-do list (if it’s on there, maybe then the dusting will get done regularly). i know that would make my boss happy, at the least, and maybe it will keep my brain from disintegrating into an easily-distracted non-memory-generating mess (my only slightly hyperbolic summation of Carr’s argument). but if, as Carr says, the brain is indeed plastic and capable of indefinite feats of learning and memory, then surely there is room enough in there for both.

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off: attention, distraction, and the interwebz

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