A quiet retreat from the busy information commons

Nick Carr’s essay in the current Atlantic Monthly crystallizes a lot of what I’ve been feeling for a couple of years about how our use of the Net is changing us. Not co-incidentally I read the essay in the printed magazine whose non-hypertextuality I experienced as a feature, not a bug. (Nick writes: “Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.”)

Although Nick doesn’t invoke Linda Stone’s touchstone phrase “continuous partial attention,” that’s the effect he’s noticing and reacting to. Whatever you think about the consequences, it’s clear that the Net doesn’t invite sustained attention, deep reading, and quiet contemplation.

Of course neither did cable television which, in the pre-Internet era, taught us to click-slice our attention much more radically than was formerly possible. But TV was just entertainment. You didn’t have to turn it on to do your job. Most of us do have to turn on the computer. As Paul Graham points out in Disconnecting Distraction, that’s a problem. He solves it by disconnecting his main work computer from the Net. But as work increasingly entails the use of software, and as software migrates into the cloud, I wonder how feasible that will be for most so-called knowledge workers.

Although Nick acknowledges that he’ll be branded “a Luddite and a nostalgist” I think his essay is spot on. The Net surely is rewiring our brains. What should we think about that, and what should we do about it? These are important questions.

Since we can’t turn back the clock, and we wouldn’t want to even if we could, I guess we’ll have to learn to live happily and productively in the noosphere we are creating.

Part of the answer is to develop — and teach — strategies that enable us to graze on the information commons in the most effective ways. I work hard at that.

But we also need strategies that enable us to retreat from that commons, and to experience sustained attention, deep reading, and quiet contemplation.

On that front, technology sometimes gives back with one hand what it takes away with the other. I’ll admit that it’s sometimes been a struggle for me, in recent years, to find that retreat in books, particularly fiction, and particularly in printed form. But portable long-form audio has been transformative. This weekend, on several multi-hour bike rides, I listened to the LibriVox version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, beautifully read by Mark Smith (thanks Mark!).

It’s a great tale! I’d never have found the hours of couch time to re-read it, but I loved listening to it on my rides. (It was also nice to recall that I had written the software that simplifies downloading the book to a podcatcher.)

As I’ve said before, the quality of sustained attention that I find I can bring to long-form audio has been, for me, an unexpected benefit of great value. I’m sure our technologies are rewiring are brains in all sorts of ways, for better and worse. Often, those changes propel us into new and uncharted territory. But they can also help us reactivate ancient traditions, like oral storytelling, and rediscover their powerful neural effects.

21 thoughts on “A quiet retreat from the busy information commons

  1. Michael Nielsen

    I set myself a quota (enforced by stickk.com), a minimal number of half-hour periods of sustained creative work that I do each week. I find this works pretty well for reducing the problems with distraction, and I often get so caught up in the work that I go well over the half hour.

    Reply
  2. Steve Mallett

    Hyper footnotes might be a nice way to format online work requiring actual thought.

    Basically, instead of putting hyperlinks within content you make footnotes as per paper, but those are hyperlinked.

    Reply
  3. Andrej Marjan

    Interesting points. One thing in your post caught my attention, and I say this non-judgmentally, I’m truly curious in your self-assessment:

    What do you think it says about you and your lifestyle that you can’t read a book these days?

    Reply
  4. Dan York

    Excellent piece, Jon. I’ve been stewing on a similar post for about 3 weeks now, ironically jotting notes and musings offline. We are indeed changing and evolving… not always in ways that may be favorable. Yet change we do. Thanks for writing this.

    Reply
  5. Jon Udell Post author

    > What do you think it says about you and
    > your lifestyle that you can’t read a book
    > these days?

    I can, and I do, but as Nick Carr says in that piece, it’s more of upstream swim than it used to be. Especially, in my case, for pleasure/recreational purposes. I read a lot of nonfiction, but struggle to make time for fiction.

    And yeah, that does kinda freak me out.

    Reply
  6. Jeremy Dunck

    I’m currently trying to reduce the number of things I care about.

    That sounds silly, but my range of interests and responsibilities divides my time so much that I feel unproductive in almost everything I do.

    I do think this is a product of the wide access to information, but also partially my own poor skills in deciding what’s worth my time.

    I definitely experience difficulty reading longform online– my IM, e-mail, text editor, and to-do list call to me.

    I think part of the rewiring is in improving our skills around prioritization and reduced distraction.

    I do frequently print off longer pieces as one form of coping. I also close e-mail during the day, but I’m constantly re-opening it when it’s time to send something, and it’s hard not to look at the inbox in those moments.

    So, yeah, it’s a beautiful mess.

    Reply
  7. Eric

    I find that if I don’t make the time to read non-technical, non-business related books (especially fiction and biography) on a regular basis, I become a very unhappy camper.

    Reply
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  12. Greg

    Jon: This captures exactly how I’ve felt about reading for the last few years. Ever since the rise of podcasting, I’ve had more frequent immersive experiences with audio books (just finished Code of the Wooseters this morning) and amazing lectures (SALT and IT Conversations being common sources of these) than with physical books, though those do come too in occasional spurts where I’ll end up spending a big part of a day reading all the way through something in a single sitting.

    On the other hand, I think I’ve also begun to have a new kind of immersive online reading experience. Not, as you say, necessarily a linear one with a long text, but often immersive nonetheless. Think of the deep wikipedia dives where you begin looking up something sensible and end up reading 1000 words about Esperanto profanity; or of discovering a new blog and then diving backwards through the archives reading post after post as you become acquainted with the author’s voice; or even chasing down some technical topic you’re trying to bootstrap yourself on: this reading may take you to dozens of sites across the web through hundreds of short articles and bits of documentation but the resulting technical ‘textbook’ is much richer and more compelling than most put together by a single author and bound in paper.

    Not all dead tree books are single-voiced and linear, but we don’t think of those as being any less immersive. I think the same leeway should go for online reading.

    Reply
  13. Greg

    Not to hog the thread here, but on the issue of fiction v. non-fiction (as separate from immersive v. CPA), I think there’s more at play than just the rise of the web. We also live in more interesting times than we did a decade ago. When I see the Borges Collected Fictions on my night stand next to Shibley Telhami book on Arab identity or Alex Steffen’s Worldchanging anthology, I have a hard justifying picking up the Borges even though it will certainly give me more pleasure. The others just seem more pressing, more urgent.

    I think I’ll read more fiction when it stops feeling quite so much like the world is hanging in the balance with each morning’s headlines…

    Reply
  14. Jon Udell Post author

    > I think I’ll read more fiction when it
    > stops feeling quite so much like the world
    > is hanging in the balance

    I understand and feel very much the same way.

    On the other hand, my parents and grandparents lived through worse times than I’ve yet to experience. Arguably most people, in most places, and in most times, did too.

    If we wait for that world-hanging-in-the-balance feeling to go away, we’ll probably wait forever.

    Reply
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