Human vs Internet

Just when I learned to focus, the Internet threw everything into a blur…

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I’ve always fought with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).  Sometimes you could even toss the “Hyperactive” part in there, depending on the occasion, topic and quantity of consumed of coffee.

My understanding has always been that this is a demon one learns to deal with over time, and that was certainly true for me for decades.  After high school I was able to better manage the number of items and events demanding my attention, and that definitely helped.  I also gradually learned coping mechanisms.  Such as allowing myself brief distractions to burn off those supernova bursts of noisy creativity and then return to whatever endless, mindless task was making me crazy.  Alcohol in small amounts has always helped, too.  In larger quantities though I progressed to an even more manic state and continued until finally reaching outright stupidity.  Treatment abandoned.

In my thirties I got really serious about coding and that also helped.  Prior to that I had spent much of my free time sketching and cranking out science fiction, and both pursuits allowed me to be a spontaneous, lazy creator of numerous unfinished works.  But programming is the sort of creative enterprise that sucks you into a zone of intense focus and clarity… and once in that silent sphere, nothing short of dynamite or some family member’s extreme drama could draw me out.  And the cool thing about coding is that it supports my iterative design process, allowing my projects to reach a useful state of near-completion while still lacking polish that can easily be applied over time.

If I know this audience, most people reading are sighing sympathetically.

Anyway, I settled into a mostly-productive groove for quite some time.  But once the Internet took off, a strange and disturbing thing happened.

The more I got sucked into the Internet, the smaller and more fragile those bubbles of peace became.  Instead of programming, I found myself scripting.  Not addressing projects, but speeding up tasks.  I went from enjoying 500 page novels to wondering how I was going to get through a five paragraph story on CNN.  The only place I can focus now is Twitter.  Thank God for tweet length limits!

As I struggle to compose this over-140-character release I’m truly troubled.  How did I get here?  And how do I get back?

Maybe it helps to look into the actual problem deeper.  Recent studies show I’m not alone in my dwindling attention span, and the Internet does indeed appear to be at least one culprit.  Another is surely the rate of technological and societal change that more progressive nations are experiencing.  Our grandparents held dearly to favored items and passed them down to subsequent generations.  We cavalierly discard expensive electronics and churn automobiles in spans of mere months.

The human brain was not originally designed to squat before a monitor and digest volumes of video, sound and text bites.  Nor are we intended to live in a perpetual mode of self-gratification where the reward far exceeds the effort.  That means if we are to continue on our current path and rush headlong toward some transformational Singularity, we must adapt or perish.  At least so we’re told.

Isn’t there a third option?  Can’t we find some way to enjoy the fruits of technology while still hanging onto at least some vestige of long term data digestion?  Are we really doomed to a destiny of byte consumers waiting impatiently for the arrival of The Matrix?

And even if Transhumanists get their way, and the privileged among us are uploaded (downloaded???) into some artificial electronic environment, are we then going to sit back and relax?  Or continue our relentless quest for bigger/better/faster/newer?

Maybe I don’t actually want the answer.

I’ve decided that for now I just need to throttle back on the Internet time.  Last weekend I went about two days without touching the laptop upon which I now vent.  I cut back on the coffee, got out and wandered downtown Fort Worth visualizing a Hackerspace where sweaty, noisy people could come together in crowded discomfort and create.  Not consume.  At any pace or degree of focus they desire.

It’s a beautiful dream.

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Editor-in-Chief. Making tech accessible since the Jurassic. Personal ramblings at Follow @texrat on Twitter.

Latest posts by Randall "texrat" Arnold (see all)

  • Barrie Turner

    My attention span has shrunk, or maybe it would be kinder to say ‘morphed’ into something different in the 15 years I’ve been online. That’s the least of my worries.
    Items seen on the internet a week ago are subjectively ancient. (Not) news items seen on a day or two ago and repeated today on the BBC are met with my derisive snorts. ‘Why do the good folks at the BBC even bother?’ I think.
    My main excuse for this kind of response thus far is pretty straightforward: I’m forty*coughs*mumbles…
    So, what’s next? Embracing it or reducing exposure? Not much of a choice.

    • Randall Arnold

      Yeah I don’t know the answer yet either. But I’m determined to find one. Obviously it begins with painful self-discipline…

  • Looking Back


    • Randall Arnold

      I *almost* didn’t get that… ;)

      • Looking Back

        In all seriousness, is our attention span shortening, or is there now so much information to get through, that we’re just skimming? I tend to “troll” in the true sense of the word. I’ll wade through a sea of information, picking up the bits I want to explore further and bookmarking them for future consumption. The problem for me is finding the balance between searching and consumption.
        TV and Radio information (news) now exists in a 24hr cycle, driven not by relevance, but by selling sensationalism. The importance of the subject matter has been replaced with a concept of being first with something “new”.
        For me, the internet is the one place I can go and actually slow down; take the amount of time I want, to discover the things that are important to me..

        • Randall Arnold

          Studies indicate that it’s both, but of course not everyone will be affected to the same degree and there are always exceptions.

  • Timur Kristóf

    Hey Randy,
    I think I’m also suffering from the same thing. And many others do.
    Usually it helps to try to reduce the amount of information to process. (Eg. I don’t watch TV and I read news very rarely. Rreasons: I usually don’t care anyway most of the time + if there’s something important, my friends are going to talk about it anyway)

    • Randall Arnold

      Yep, you’re right! I just get caught up in the frenzy and forget sometimes…

      • Timur Kristóf

        Sometimes I get caught up myself. :)

  • dansus

    I came to the internet and the third screen in my 30’s, before then i was active and social. I still am but no matter what im doing, im always happiest when i get back to the screen.

    Not sure what it means..

    • Barrie Turner

      Sometimes I wish I could revert back to pre-mobile internet days. I had a whale of a time in 1997/1998 on lovely fast dial-up. My current consumption is almost exclusively 3.5″-sized. Have *you* the discipline to, what’s that word… wait? :)

    • Randall Arnold

      It means you’re as doomed as the rest of us. #sorry