Media Snack Packs

This post is very late according to my self-imposed deadline of the first of every month. It was originally late because I was traveling on June 1st and didn’t have decent access to wifi. Then the arbitrary deadline passed, nothing happened and lying on the sofa watching the Euros seemed a much more appealing way to spend my free time. And then another week went by….

Originally the post was going to be titled “Frictionless Future?” and I wanted to address the always-on nature of ‘frictionless’ sharing, and how I thought that this is a bad thing. I started on it a couple of times and realized there are two sides to this, inbound and outbound. By ‘inbound’ I mean the stuff that shows up in the top right corner box on Facebook and other real-time updating services. ‘Outbound’ references the fact that so much of what we do is being captured and stored passively. In the time between June 1st and now I’ve read thoughts from numerous other people about this same topic. The more I’m reading other people’s thoughts on this topic, the better I’m coming to understand my own unease.

Underlying my procrastination was that I didn’t really have a clear point of view on what exactly the problem with a frictionless future was. I knew it bothered me and it seemed like it bother a lot of other people too. The outline I had drawn up touched on how the emergence of portable, connected devices is the key thing enabling the always-on trend and how the unending flow is wearing us down. I thought I might end with saying something about how the backlash to frictionless will create a new round of fragmentation. There is an increasing amount of research to back up the fragmentation idea, but this conclusion seemed to miss the point.

In the past couple of weeks, the phrases “slow web” and “slow tech” have appeared on my radar, primarily from the following sources:

Joe Kraus, “Creating a Culture of Distraction”

Jack Cheng “The Slow Web”

They’re long (by blog post standards) but concise, so any attempt by me to summarize would necessarily leave out key elements. So just go read them right now.

These two posts articulate and address my unease with the always-on, frictionless inbound bombardment we now encounter in our daily, connected lives. We are cultivating a “culture of distraction” at the expense of the deep and wandering thinking that often leads to great bursts of insight and creativity.

I’ve noticed in my own habits the negative effect that bite size bits of distractions have on my ability to focus and be productive. When I start the day skimming news sites, email and twitter, I find it much harder to actually get started on the day’s work. Instead I keep craving just a little more “something”. In my own brain, I rationalize these moments by labeling them as “quickly catching up” or “just a little something before I get started” or “a little break” from whatever I’ve been doing. While I try to convince myself that these are trivial activities by using words like “quickly,” “just” and “little,” the switch back to productive work often gets stalled after these breaks and I get caught in a loop of checking various services for updates and new items. It’s like the digital version of highly processed snacks packed in 100 calorie portions. There is little actual nutrition in these snacks and research has shown that this type of packaging can lead to over consumption when people focus on the permissive quality of the “small portion” labeling and lose sight of the cumulative effect of consuming multiple rounds. To me it really feels like repeatedly checking various updating services mirrors this consumption pattern.

In Joe Kraus’ conclusion he references the fact that he wonders how his kid will deal with the “culture of distraction.” This question is exactly the same one that motivated me to start this blog. I also think it is worth pointing out that both Joe and I work in web/technology fields and that success in these fields is measured by things like unique visitors, pageviews and dwell time. In other words, building things that capture more of people’s time and attention when compared to the competitors. Possibly because we have an insider’s view of the “culture of distraction” we can look ahead and see how if things continue on the current trajectory, the next generation is going to be a twitchy mess (kids these days…)

It seems like the starting point for addressing the negative effects of all the distractions is to put boundaries around them. Joe blocks out time every week where he does not interact with phone, email, TV, radio or ebooks. This is a good place to start but how do we communicate the value of this discipline to kids that have never known a world without the iPad?

My kid is under two so I can still be the one who decides how our time is spent. As he gets older this will change and my preference for him to spend some of his time offline will have to compete with “the fear of missing out” and all its hardwired triggers and dopamine feedback loops. I see it as my responsibility to be the parent and put in place rules that  will help guide him, and balance that with information on why these are the rules so he can interrogate them and start to form his own opinion (heh, yeah, check back in ten years and ask me how that goes…). I think that’s the starting point.

His experience and relationship with technology and all its distractions will be radically and fundamentally different from anything I could ever predict. The thing that will make the most difference will be his ability to see things objectively and within a larger context. That kind of foundation for critical thinking is really what’s going to define his ability to find balance and meaning in the great information onslaught in what, right now, looks like will be the future.

Further Reading:

“Journal of Consumer research;” The Effects of Reduced Food Size and Package Size on the Consumption Behavior of Restrained and Unrestrained Eaters; Maura L. Scott, Stephen M. Nowlis, Naomi Mandel, Andrea C. Morales

Teens turn from Facebook to fresher social-media sites

Catarina Fake on The Fear of Missing Out (original post is gone?)