Scott H Young

Society’s Attention Deficit – Praise for Deep Thinking in the Era of Shallowness


Is this the speed of our times?

Could the internet be making us stupider?

Cal Newport suggests it might. He shares recent research that shows electronic multitasking results in poorer performance on cognitive tasks. No surprise there: being on Facebook or Twitter won’t help you concentrate.

The interesting finding however, was that chronic multitaskers perform significantly worse on tasks even when they weren’t being distracted. Constant distractions might actually be reshaping the brain.

Can You Really Follow 10,000+ People on Twitter?

I know people who have over 1000 unread items in their feed reader. I also know people who “follow” more than ten thousand people through Twitter. People who have 1000 supposedly genuine friends on Facebook (i.e. not fans of a blog or celebrity).

My question: Is it even possible to keep up with all this information?

Of course, the people I’ve spoken to about their internet habits claim it is. One of my friends that follows 2000+ people on Twitter claims he just drops in sporadically, scans the latest news and jumps back out. He doesn’t try to read everything, just focus on the important and ignore the rest.

My friend with 1000+ unread blog articles expressed a similar sentiment. He claims he knows which feeds he always reads, scans headlines for interesting articles and ignores the rest.

Perhaps my brain just isn’t hardwired to do what my friends have done. Maybe they really can selectively filter thousands of inputs and focus on the few that truly matter. Or maybe they’re just kidding themselves that they can manage the flood of information without drowning in it.

Too Much Choice Leads to Poor Decisions

Most people who choose to live in a high-information environment accept that they can’t read everything or befriend everyone. The argument, instead, tends to be that they have the ability to select and focus on the essential pieces of that information.

Modern cognitive research suggests otherwise.

In the fantastic book, How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer shares a study which gave participants the task of choosing a car. When only 4 criteria were displayed, participants who thought about the decision tended to make the correct choice. When the number of criteria was increased to 16, the participants who thought about the decision actually made worse choices.

This finding shows that at the level of conscious thought, our brain is spectacularly bad at filtering information.

Intuition and emotional reasoning is better suited for handling these types of decisions. But that creates new problems. The gut reaction is better tuned to highlight the urgent, rather than the important. You are attracted to flashy headlines instead of meaningful thoughts.

Guzzle the Waterfall or Sip from the Straw?

The way I see it there are two distinct strategies you can use to read books, blogs, magazines and use the internet:

  1. You can try to guzzle from the waterfall and hope that whatever you drink was worthwhile.
  2. Or, you can pick a straw and selectively drink from a much smaller cup.

My internet habits are decidedly straw-sipping. I rarely follow more than a dozen blogs at a time, and I regularly purge my feed reader. While I do get a lot of email, my inbox is emptied every day.

On Twitter, I only follow about 50 people. Even with that service I have mixed feelings. While I enjoy the community conversation and sparks for ideas, it exacerbates the problem, glorifying brevity over substance.

In my experience, waterfall-guzzling suffers from two major problems. First, it forces you to rely only on emotional reasoning when deciding what to consume. And just as emotional eating doesn’t usually result in the best diet, I don’t believe strictly emotional information consumption results in the best quality.

Second, waterfall-guzzling pressures you to seek summaries instead of substance. It’s far easier for me to scan Twitter than it is to read a 1000 word article on a topic. It’s even easier for me to read that 1000 word article than it is to read a 200 page book. The pressure of the waterfall makes us shallower.

Tweets are Not Short Articles, Blogs are Not Short Books

This pressure toward shallowness is dangerous because articles aren’t the same as books. Reading two dozen articles isn’t the same as reading one entire book. Similarly reading 140 character tweets doesn’t add up to one article with a thesis and supporting argument.

I wrote a precursor tweet to this article on Twitter earlier:

“Books, not just blogs. Ideas, not just tweets. Depth matters in thinking and in life.”

Interesting, maybe. Especially if you only need five seconds of your time to read it. But there are no arguments, no hard-earned conclusions, no tangents of thought. Just statements that you either agree with or don’t, that either trigger you to think or forget it entirely.

Similarly, this article isn’t the same as reading an entire book, such as How We Decide or The Paradox of Choice. I can briefly touch on arguments and present a few pieces of evidence. But I can’t deepen the ideas, present every relevant viewpoint, tell vivid stories that will make the information stick with you forever.

After having written a few books, I can say that writing a book doesn’t feel the same as writing an article. It’s like the difference between a week-long interaction and a speed date. Writing a book doesn’t have the same breathless urgency to each sentence, as if any explanation over two paragraphs must be dropped for something more interesting and succinct.

This doesn’t mean books are universally better. Simply that some ideas need them. Some can be sufficiently expressed in an aphorism, others require 1000 pages to truly understand. By choosing shallowness you cut yourself off from every argument that can’t be summed up in a sentence.

Cultivating Silence in the Age of Noise

My solution has been to deliberately cull the noise from my life. I don’t own a television, so any shows I watch must be selected beforehand. I regularly remove people from Facebook and Twitter, unsubscribe from blogs or email newsletters.

My goal is to be chronically empty. That is, I should be able to easily empty all my information accounts each day, so that there are no unread messages, tweets, unseen photos of friends. My goal is to create silence.

Silence isn’t a vacuum, however. It creates space that lets me read books instead of just blogs, follow genuine friends instead of just acquaintances, and spend time thinking about deeper ideas instead of irrelevant details.

What are your thoughts? Do you guzzle waterfalls or sip from a straw? What is your strategy for managing the flood of information without drowning in it? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Image courtesy of Thomas Faivre-Duboz


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18 Responses to “Society’s Attention Deficit – Praise for Deep Thinking in the Era of Shallowness”

  1. You raised some important questions in your article and I agree that “Too Much Choice Leads to Poor Decisions.”

    Internet has its pros and cons but its us who have to know how effectively use it.

  2. I think you are spot on, Scott, and this has been weighing on my mind as well. I don’t know if you read this NY Times article about how the multi-tasking mentality of technology affects our brains, but after reading it I half-considered giving up Twitter, Facebook, and the rest of the social Web.

    There’s no doubt in my mind that checking Twitter and Facebook is almost always a complete waste of time, time that I could be spending focusing on the things that are really important to me. And when you couple that fact with the research coming out showing that it actually re-programs your brain in a negative way, it seems like a no-brainer to give it up. I’m not sure I’ll be able to give them up completely, but I’m trying to cut down on them in an attempt to mitigate the downsides.

  3. Louche says:

    “This doesn’t mean books are universally better. Simply that some ideas need them. Some can be sufficiently expressed in an aphorism, others require 1000 pages to truly understand. By choosing shallowness you cut yourself off from every argument that can’t be summed up in a sentence.”

    You said books are not universally better, but choosing to read anything other than books means cutting books out. That doesn’t make sense. Why can’t one “choose shallowness” one moment and in-depth reading in another?

    And no, the internet is not making us “stupider.” It may tend to detract from one area of our intellectual life (self-discipline), while contributing to another (knowledge). I always knew books were important, but I used to not read many because I was such a slow reader, it was arduous… then one day I became passionate about something and started reading tons of blogs. Then I read some books on the same topic and initially liked them better, because they seemed deeper and more complete. In fact, now I have realized that the blogs I read critique the books I read and that the blogs are actually more anarchic, up-to-date, down-to-earth, interactive… whereas the best books were written by old people who don’t know how to take criticism for their ideas and feel the need to cling to them since they’re making money and fame, good political bloggers tend to be young grad students who accept and invite critical comments… not all bloggers are like that, but they’re not too difficult to find.

    The ability to read blog posts was so *not* daunting in comparison to reading books that I read and read and read, I learned how to skim without specifically trying… it just became natural to know what was worth my time or not because after a while of reading on one topic things become increasingly redundant. That made reading books easier, and now I am a more efficient reader and absolutely *love* reading books. If a book sucks, I simply skim through it to find out and then open the next one. That’s not problematic.

    That said, I think it’s really important to read books. And blogs, if not academic articles. I do sometimes find the internet a distraction from book-reading, and indeed it is a problem. As David Allen notes, our modern lifestyle is quite new in the grand scheme of things, and we haven’t entirely developed ways of dealing with it.

  4. Wendy Irene says:

    I am a straw sipper myself. I feel like if I take on too much I don’t give the attention I want to give to those most important to me. In fact the other day I was looking at my Google reader trying to decide what to purge…obviously not this blog I really enjoy! ;-) I am definitely of the opinion less is more, and that applies to so many areas of life!

  5. Terry says:

    I regularly trim my tweet and blog list. I already know who really interests me as far as bloggers go and I learn a variety of things from each one. Some teach me about writing , some about creating a story, some about making (or not) money..etc. As for tweets they are skimmed and I really should trim my tweet buddies even further. In the end I look for writing that touches the meaning and purpose in me, sometimes nudging a chuckle out and rare prose that could possibly change the world. I suppose the straw is my weapon of choice.

  6. I found your ideas to be very substantive and important. There is a real parallel to Zen thinking (in my opinion). Have you ever thought of your ideas in this way? Silence is a wonderfully enriching place to reside sometimes in order to hear one’s inner wisdom more clearly. Thanks for reminding us that information overload often does an injustice to us all.

    Terry Del Percio
    @WorkIntegrity

  7. Scott Young says:

    Louche,

    I don’t see a problem with my argument. If you read only blogs and tweets, you miss longer, more complex arguments than books. My claim is that shorter byte-sized information, when consumed to overabundance, tend to push out longer, more patience-requiring forms of media.

    -Scott

  8. This discussion reminds me of another similar one – ‘Pop music trains you to only listen to simplistic, brief sound bites of music, if you like pop music, you’re not intelligent enough to understand classical, you don’t have the mental discipline’
    Personally, I think they’re both specious. My own musical tastes range from opera, concertos, through Folk music and pop to heavy metal rock, and my choice of reading is similarly varied, and I don’t believe myself to be atypical. We all have different capabilities to absorb information in different ways – my husband, for instance is a much more kinetic & visual learner, who struggles with reading, while I ‘hoover’ up books and almost any wordy material I can get my hands on!
    I think this is about personal choice, as is the amount of information we want to collect in any given area, self discipline means different things to different people. Personally I’m neither a simple sipper nor a waterfall person, I do the waterfall thing on a new subject, till I learn who speaks my language, then I drink greedily from that particular fountain! Thank you for this refreshing fountain, Scott ;o)

  9. kris - Fiji says:

    Hi Scott

    You have hit the nail on the head i am struggling with this like so many others – There is so much to do and so many things to catch up that one really gets lost in the guzzle of the waterfall of information and is only able to skim through the surface of things and never able to get to the depth of things.

    Can you suggest the best way to sip from the straw rather than drink all that which is flowing through. Please also suggest an ideal daily timetable for scheduling ones daily activities better.

    Thanks
    Kris

  10. Sid Ban says:

    You framed your question in an either/or context. Is it possible that multi-tasking could be useful? For example, doing an exercise while watching television? Or, it may not be useful when studying something requiring concentrated thought. Moreover, what about multi-tasking when waiting for some software to load. There are also a number of events when you are talking to someone on the phone and doodling at the same time. This is suppose to help you to remember. It would seem that multi-tasking is not as bad as it has been labeled. Over-generalization, is it not?

  11. Scott Young says:

    Michelle,

    I’m not here to put forward the proposition that all books are better. Some ideas *are* better left in their brief format. Simply that it takes more effort to read a book than to skim Twitter headlines or articles, and that books tend to contain different categories of ideas.

    I think it’s important to have a mixture, but it’s easy to let the bytes overwhelm the books if you take a waterfall guzzling approach.

    Sid,

    Multitasking has uses, but I believe its range of usefulness is more limited than many of us would care to admit to ourselves.

    -Scott

  12. Tyler Law says:

    Hi Scott,

    Great ideas here, I love the website, but unfortunately have only been driven to comment since I disagree (sorry about that! praise should come more freely).

    I think this is a bit of an oversimplification. As you’ve responded in comments, it is about a mixture of medias. Yes, short-form media takes away from long-form, but the reverse is also true. It is the old breadth vs. depth comment; I don’t think either is *intrinsically* better.

    Also, I think you’re missing out on a third category of consumption: “the Waterfall Sipper”. This describes the example of your friends you’ve given, and myself. Yes, I truly do have over 1,000 unread items in my feed reader. And yes, I truly do dip in a few times a day to check what’s happening. I’m not interested in knowing EVERYTHING.

    I’m also after silence. But I can achieve silence with unread RSS items, and an inbox with pending items. I can know that, and still go and read a book. In my opinion, the Waterfall Sipper gives me the best of both worlds.

    Keep up the great work,
    Tyler

  13. Loved the way you put it in the your post: Guzzle or sip. I try my very best to be a sipper throughout most of life but it is no doubt getting harder and harder. I recognize the importance of social media for marketing and entertainment reasons but does that mean I should burry myself in tweets and facebook updates? I doubt it. But where’s the happy medium?

    I love reading and learning so much that I had to take a speed reading class a couple years back to keep up. The stack of books on my desk keeps getting higher. I guess that’s a little more waterfall like. The line is getting very blurry and articles like this help me to remember the importance and calmness of the straw approach…

    Thank you and well done Scott,
    Scott

  14. Amelia says:

    Hi Scott,
    Like you, I sip from the straw. I own a television for watching dvd’s but I have not had TV reception for many years, I really only follow four blogs – this is one, and I have been thinking about culling down my facebook friends for a while now… I really like your idea that “The pressure of the waterfall makes us shallower”; I think there is some real truth in that. My problem with the “information age”, is that I feel that I can get stuck reading about lots of different things but never actually sit down and analyse and come up with my own opinions – because I’m too busy reading everyone else’s.
    Thanks so much for your insight :)

  15. Mike Swickey says:

    Scott, I have been amazed watching the progress of your blog. You focus on REALITY – and you are a thinker. It is quite obvious to me you put a lot of thought into your posts and you focus on quality over quantity. I would encourage you to read the new book, “The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr and take a look at some of his other writing, including his blog ‘Rough Type’. A 45 minute interview with Carr can be found here. http://surprisinglyfree.com/2010/06/07/nicholas-carr-on-what-the-internet-is-doing-to-our-brains/ I think that, based on this post today, you will find much in common with Mr. Carr. It is a truly fascinating interview; it hits on much of what you wrote in this excellent post. Keep up the good work, Scott!

  16. Stephen says:

    Once my laptop gets the battery life and dpi of a book then I’ll start reading 300 page+ books.

    You mention culling the noise to read a book. I think you should also mention culling the bad books. You’ve mentioned before you believe in the 80/20 rule (I may be misremembering). In a blog post or in a twitter feed it’s easier to extract the information you want, the 20% percent you want. It’s harder to extract what you want out of a book. At least in the usual way people read.

    Ya Facebook is noise and so is Twitter, but they are a form of socialising. While we can bash the social network for being noising but you have to extend that to friends. Friends are noisy and distracting. I think where the important should lay is in what gets your attention.

    I would have liked to have seen this as an article for managing your attention not necessary culling noise. How many programs are you running that have an unread count, or makes a sound when updated? Is that noise or an attempt to grab your attention?

  17. […]  Scott H. Young examines Society’s Attention Deficit – Praise for Deep Thinking in the Era of Shallowness. You’ll find lots to think about in this article, from the Paradox of Choice to cultivating […]

  18. Mister says:

    I actively avoid getting email. I set up Gmail filters so that I have to read less mail.
    I deleted most of my Facebook friends (at time of writing this I have 4 friends).
    Instead of having my mobile phone ring all the time, I set up Google Voice, so I don’t answer calls, but text messages and voicemails go to my email inbox.
    (I use my mobile for emergencies though)

    I set up webfilters which discourage me from browsing the web
    http://www.cloudacl.com/

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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