There’s good news and bad news about contemporary society’s overwhelming saturation with digital media. The good news is that a staggering, unprecedented volume of facts, fantasies, ideas and opinions is available at your fingertips in a flash. The bad news is that a staggering, unprecedented volume of facts, fantasies, ideas and opinions is available at your fingertips in a flash.
To see why this is both a good and a bad thing, consider how human beings in past ages had to acquire such data. They generally obtained their news from newspapers and other such journals, and not everyone could obtain issues, — or was even literate; so you might have a scenario where, for instance, a group of family and friends would gather in the parlor or on the porch while one individual would read news stories to all of them. Or going back even farther, you might rely on town criers or gossip. Research generally would be done at a library, to which one might have to drive, ride or walk a great distance. Only a few decades ago, I did some of my research by telephoning experts on the topic (e.g., professors), who were always willing and even eager to answer my questions. (This is still a recommended tactic to obtain information in many cases, but it’s often unnecessary, because you readily can find online what such experts have written about the subject.)
Now aside from the fact that the amount of material today is almost incomprehensibly greater (more data is posted online now in a single day than even the most learned scholar would acquire in a lifetime in ages past), you may spot two major differences in former data-gathering and current data-gathering: the amount of time required, and the amount of effort required. The first is what makes the contemporary way a good thing, but the second is what creates drawbacks along with the benefits.
It’s certainly a positive to be able to access information more quickly than ever before. It saves a great deal of time, and theoretically, makes us more more fully and accurately informed, and more productive. But the lack of effort is a two-edged sword, and most often it seems to cut the wrong way. The less effort we put into acquiring information, the less likely we are to absorb, retain, and evaluate. And let’s face it, no effort at all is required to obtain data in the present age; indeed, it would require effort to avoid being bitten by the megabytes. As a result, we have become a society of intellectual invalids, just ripe for the plucking when hucksters come along — as, of course, they do. We are being constantly beset by digital demons, and they sometimes seem to be getting the better of us.
Noted brain and memory coach Jim Kwik has identified 4 specific types of digital demon — or as he calls them, digital supervillain. Kwik, who overcame the childhood handicap of a severe brain injury, and then suffered another such injury as a young man, not only mastered using his own brain effectively, but mastered the skills to teach others how to do the same. Here are the digital supervillains he warns about:
Digital Deluge. Which is to say, being bombarded by so much data that we get lost in it.
Digital Distraction. As the term implies, this is allowing digital media to distract us from other activities, and in effect distract us from being productive and living our lives fully.
Digital Dementia. Losing the ability to retain information because we depend so much on our devices to retain it for us.
Digital Deduction. Losing the ability to think independently because we have access to the ideas of so many other people who have done our thinking for us.
At the same time it is providing you with unprecedented means of education and productivity, the Internet is unleashing these digital demons to steal your focus, waste your time, deaden your retention, and dull your powers of reasoning. In short, to steal your autonomy.
So what can be done about it? Here are some suggestions that should prove useful.
Limit your time online. Unless you need to stay glued to a computer screen as part of your job, it’s a good idea to limit your online time to no more than a couple of hours per day — or heck, even just one if you can swing it. Setting yourself a strict time limit will force you to prioritize and concentrate more; as a result, you quite likely might find that you get more done in one hour than you did by being hooked up all day. And you’ll still have all those extra hours to do something else. And by the way, it’s perfectly possible to do work on your computer without being online. Honestly.
Use a list. To get the most out of a limited amount of time online, start out with a list of online tasks. And stick to it, making exceptions only for unexpected urgent developments — a message about a family emergency, for example. If you bristle at the rigidity of this approach, and don’t want to give up passive browsing, then allot a few minutes for it on your list. However…
Avoid surfing. “Surfing”, as opposed to mere browsing, is allowing yourself to be swept from one website to another, one topic to another, because you’re just following the leads that pop up. And if you do this, it may seem random and spontaneous to you, but be assured your strings are being pulled by the gremlins behind the scenes who are baiting you with meticulous algorithms. Boot them out, and stay in the driver’s seat of your own mind and life. If you see something that piques your interest, make a note of it and put it on your list to investigate another day. That way, it will at least be something you’d planned to check out rather than something that catches you off guard. And who knows, before the day comes when it’s on your list, you might even decide you don’t want to spend the time on it after all. Think of it as a way to curb impulse buying and stay within your budget. In this case, it isn’t money that’s being budgeted, but time. And brain cells.
For the most part, there’s really no such thing as multitasking — there’s merely switching back and forth between tasks at very brief intervals. Which takes a toll on your gray matter. You may believe you’re being more productive if you write a letter, play solitaire and edit a video at the same time, but you’re likely to find that the total time spent is actually more than you would have spent on the sum of the three if tackled separately. And the quality of performance on all will suffer. That said, it’s possible to engage in two (and probably no more than two) activities at once if there is a large degree of passivity involved in at least one — and no more than one requires digital interaction. For example, I like to watch videos while I wash dishes, and it doesn’t seem to increase the time required for the task. And I listen to music while I write. Listening to music can be as active or as passive as you choose to make it; and it doesn’t require you to use your eyes or to make any decisions, the way writing does. Plus, it actually seems to enhance creative activity — especially intricate classical music like that of Bach. Listening to audiobooks while you drive is okay; trying to watch a movie isn’t.
Who says you have to perform all your tasks with an electronic sidekick? Rediscover the joys of pen and paper, of real books and magazines, of a calendar hanging on the wall. Chances are you’ll feel more connected to the content you produce. You might even wean yourself off such Internet-related terms as “content”.
Ditch the social media
If you haven’t watched the documentary The Social Dilemma, you must do so right away. It’s a sobering, frightening indictment of how social media is carefully engineered to take as much control of your life as possible. And these aren’t wild-eyed conspiracy theorists telling you this. They’re noted tech industry veterans, including such legendary Internet pioneers as Tristan Harris and Jaron Lanier. They advise you to drop social media cold turkey and never look back. To this, I would add that at least one possible exception is Facebook — which, despite being a festering cesspool of right-wing misinformation, is also a handy way to keep in touch with people you haven’t seen in decades. But use it very, very sparingly and judiciously. Like cyanide.
Strive for balance — if you can find it.
Let’s face it, the concept of “opposing viewpoints” ain’t what it used to be. It’s no longer possible to establish any kind of balanced dialogue between left-leaning and right-leaning worldviews. Nowadays, left-wing extremism means, for example, wanting Medicare for all and respect for transgenders; right-wing extremism, on the other hand, means believing that George Soros controls the galaxy and commands the Deep State from Hunter Biden’s laptop, coordinating boatloads of illegal ballots from China and a pedophile ring from the basement of a pizza parlor with no basement — and the Left wants to indoctrinate your kids with Critical Race Theory, whatever that is. Any effort to give equal time to Left and Right will necessarily result in the most grotesque of imbalances — and serve the objectives of the Right. Nonetheless, it’s possible and advisable to take a balanced examination of specific issues, rather than just let confirmation bias sweep you along. Should reparations be paid to descendants of slaves? Should the police be “defunded”? Which prison should Former Guy go to? These are all legitimate topics for debate. Seeking out different viewpoints on such matters will expose you to facts and ideas that you might not consider otherwise. Of course, this has always been good advice; but it’s even more urgent in this era when we’re so deluged with information, misinformation, claims, and opinions. And it’s all too easy to just latch onto what sounds good and adopt it as our own.
Every now and then — and ideally about once a week — it’s a good idea to take an Internet fast, and let your neurons air out. If really necessary, make an exception just long enough to check your messages. As I write this, I’ve just experienced two days with no Internet service thanks to a blackout caused by a massive storm. And I’m none the worse for wear.
It’s also important to use some of your unplugged time (not just once a week , but as often as you can) to engage in mind-stimulating activity. This should include either: creative endeavors like writing, drawing, or inventing recipes; brain teasers such as crossword puzzles, sudoku, or chess; or hobbies you are keenly interested in, such as collecting things, gardening or playing poker. Ideally, you even should do one or more from each category, as they help sharpen different mental faculties.
If you keep feeding bits of your brain to the digital demons, they will continue to devour them with no compunction — and keep demanding bigger and bigger chunks. It may not be easy, but you can reclaim your mind, your time and your life.
I know of a fellow who has long been a serious poetry reader. But after several years of daily marathon Internet indulgence, he found that he could no longer comprehend much of the poetry he read. Then he underwent a program of more conscientious digital indulgence similar to what I have outlined, and soon his powers of comprehension returned, and now he is as voracious and appreciative a poetry reader as ever.
If it happened to him, it can happen to you. That goes for both the damage and the recovery from it.