Challenges of the information age (Part III) – Procrastination and distraction

In my last article, I mostly discussed the positives of contemporary information technology and outlined some negatives as well. Today I will try to describe and discuss a topic that is widely discussed nowadays, namely attention problems. It seems that all of us today have difficulty, at least to some degree, sustaining attention and performing one task for long periods of time at a time, attending to only one source of stimulus, or even just beginning to concentrate, whether on work or a hobby.

Few people will be strangers to situations where a person says to themselves that they will check their emails or messages one more time, watch one more video, and then start working. Only in hindsight do we realize that we just killed an hour mindlessly clicking for no apparent reason and with no productive result.

Procrastination is not exactly a new phenomenon, but rather a phenomenon of today

In the past, of course, people also spent their time doing undemanding activities like flipping through magazines or flipping through TV channels, but today the problem seems to be far more widespread and pronounced. There may be a plethora of reasons for this, as human behaviour is rarely easily explained, but there are a few reasons that are fairly obvious.

The first is accessibility (the majority of the population owns a smartphone) and the ease with which we can find something on the internet that instantly entertains us for a short period of time. This aspect of the problem is compounded by the fact that we often have to use a computer or check our mobile phones, whether for work or to communicate with family and friends.

Apps and websites are literally trying to make us addicted

Sites and apps such as Instagram, Messenger, 9GAG and many others present an opportunity for instant passive entertainment. This is not to say that they are bad, but the way we consume this new media means there is a constant urge for the human brain to just take a quick look to see what’s new somewhere. When we look at McLuhan’s division of media into cool (requiring more participation from the consumer, affecting fewer senses less intensely) and hot (not requiring substantial participation and stimulating more senses more intensely), it becomes apparent that apps like Instagram are media that directly radiate heat.

Every new interesting photo we open, every ? like on our post, every short messenger message conveys a tiny dose of dopamine (a feeling of happiness, of being entertained) that takes some time and effort to work or read to get to.

Since happiness is what we generally crave, it is a logical decision to choose the path that will bring us happiness as quickly as possible. The problem is that the promise of this chemical reward should (at least from an evolutionary perspective) motivate us to engage in activities that are worthwhile, which unfortunately surfing the internet mostly isn’t. But when we’re conditioned to get our little dose of happiness immediately and effortlessly, it’s all the harder to talk ourselves into any more challenging, yet useful, activity. That’s why people read less, interact more online than in person, and are pulled away from work by the urge to take a quick look at the news on the web.

So what to do about it?

Overcoming this ubiquitous obstacle is not easy, but it will become increasingly important as technology advances. Although the brain is an unimaginably complex and as yet only imperfectly explored field of knowledge, some of the principles of its operation are actually quite intuitive. The length and quality of attention can be trained, just as we can train the muscular and cardiovascular systems.

Every hour we spend reading strengthens our powers of concentration, memory, language skills, and so on. Every hour of concentrated future work facilitates the ability (discipline, will) to start the work at the appointed time, and not interrupt it without wanting to. If we simplify human motivation into a whip (motivation to avoid pain, suffering) and sugar (motivation to have pleasurable experiences), the only difference is that historically we have had all the whips around us (hunger, sickness, cold …) and we had to toil to survive at all, whereas today in Western society we have a lot of sugar cubes around us (fast food, smartphones or explicit adult content), and we have to learn to knit our own whips so that we don’t succumb to the diseases of civilization.

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