On Disconnecting

Published: 2022-09-22

My email notifications recently stopped working because I changed some of the settings. Ironically the new settings were to help organise my inbox so I would be interrupted unnecessarily less often, but I didn't think they would stop altogether. I thought about googling for solutions to fix it, but the thought also occurred to me - would being interrupted even less than I had planned be an even better outcome? Would fixing this actually be a step back?

As it turns out, apart from a very small number of emails that may have required faster attention, I was happier overall for the fewer notifications living in my status bar. I did not seem to have lost anything. The question was: had I gained anything?

A Simpler Time

I was reminded of this experience when reading Douglas Rushkoff's Program or Be Programmed... In the excellent first chapter "Time", he reminded me how the old Internet was designed around the capabilities of the technology of the time. You could say that computers back then were simpler, as in it took a much greater effort to program them compared with today. The internet was also slower and as a result, as Rushkoff points out, going online was much more of a deliberate event.

Old modem

I remember saving my pennies to buy a 56k modem (state of the art back then, limited by the telephone infrastructure over which it operated), and the joy of listening to the beeps and whistles as it dialed the remote server. I mostly went online to use email and check bulletin boards where I could discover fascinating conversations relating to my Computer Science course. There was also free software to be found (the start of the era of ShareWare), and of course I needed to download some software tools for my course.

What Rushkoff says was correct back then - we chose to make the effort to go online, and many things mapped to everyday routines and structures; we chose to check email much the same as we chose to check our actual mailboxes. We chose to craft an email reply with almost as much effort as writing a letter, deeply considering what was being said (except that sending it was easier). We chose which websites to visit much like going to the library or buying a magazine. Of course I spent my fair share of time in online chat-rooms, but this was also an effortful choice because using my modem cost the price of a phone call back then, and also tied up the phone line for my housemates!

Digital Velocity

These days the supporting infrastructure has combined with the ever present commercial pressure of "faster better sooner" to force those original square-pegged time-agnostic internet technologies into a synchronous and on-demand round hole. Messages come at us at times that we had not planned to be dealing with them, notifications fill our status bars and unread-counters play with our anxieties.

Decades ago, due to the expensive nature of computers, they were designed to be multi-user, and thus multi-tasking. Humans are not. Many studies have shown this, even if we think it to be true. However, as seems to happen with human adoption of a tool, we seem to succumb to the biases and abilities of the tool instead of using it to extend our own abilities. Sometimes this can be a good thing (think perhaps of the benefit of riding a bike over our natural instincts we need to overcome to be able to ride it), but sometimes it can be very bad.

In the case of this new context- and priority-agnostic information delivery, as Rushkoff puts it: "our ability to accomplish tasks accurately and completely only diminishes the more we try to do at the same time. This is not the fault of the digital technology but in the way that we use it." We mistakenly substitute the instantaneous execution and delivery capability of the software and networks for the deliberate engagement choices we make in our regular social lives. If you bump into a friend while shopping, would you suspend what you are doing to half-heartedly engage with them? Or do you exchange pleasantries and then agree on a time when you can provide your full attention?

Social Media

Attention Monopolies

It is the attention that is the key. Author Cal Newport authored a book ("Deep Work") on the importance of being able to dedicate full attention to a task, and in it describes how many great thinkers simply locked themselves away from the world in order to focus on producing their best work. And that was before the arrival of social media. Author Mark Manson has also written about this - but be prepared to test your own attention as it is a 30-minute read!

If we are the digital consumers then the digital producers play attention games with us. Perhaps you are expecting a particular email from a friend, a result from a test, or a response from an important query. While your brain is in this state of expectation, any notification that comes through immediately prompts you to switch away from what you may have been concentrating on, only to find that it is yet another weekly offer from a shopping outlet you used 6 months ago. Rushkoff further reveals (at the time of writing) that one outcome of this bombardment is that "cellphone users complain of 'phantom vibration syndrome', the sensation of a cell phone vibrating on your thigh, even though there's no phone in your pocket." I know I've experienced that.

Rushkoff admits that tools change us and always have. Despite the Luddites' lament, most would agree that we came out of the industrial revolution the better for it, but those new machines augmented and enhanced our physical capabilities. There is an argument that the digital revolution augments and enhances our mental capabilities and we both think that is true to an extent. However it was much harder for the industrial machines to encroach on and influence our abilities and behaviours, especially because they were completely visible to us, for the most part revealing how they worked. Computer algorithms are hidden from us, and as has been often revealed they use psychological tricks to leverage and influence our primal mental functions, not to mention the constant data-collection that we unknowingly exchange as currency for our connectivity.

Deny the Digital Agency

Rushkoff's answer is plain - "To engage with the digital... can still be a choice rather than a given." But I think this is an over-simplified goal and one which, especially for the generation that did not witness the birth of the internet, does not come with enough instructions. The older amongst us perhaps never forgot the purposeful effort of the original internet, but the younger have not seen that and are instead used to perpetual connectivity.

I think as with most behavioural changes it is a matter of habit. I began by re-configuring my inbox to use Gmail's 'important' and 'star' labelling to separate the wheat from the chaff. In this case the technology does provide a useful tool and it has adjusted my focus onto the important messages which need my attention and away from those that don't. It's funny that now the most common operation I do on my 'not-important' list is delete them.

On top of this I spend a few minutes focussing on the important things - as referenced in my productivity post, the things that I see will take less than 3 minutes I do immediately, the others I schedule to receive my focus later. These configuration and habitual changes mean that I only check my email 2-3 times a day. Not as infrequently as during my dial-up days, but dealing with email is now a choice that I make as opposed to a choice that is forced on me.

In addition I have made an effort to switch towards long-attention tasks. I try to actively choose to read a book over watching online videos, or even watch consecutive episodes of a TV series. If I do find myself browsing YouTube, I put things I want to watch into a playlist and wait until lunchtime or the end of the day to watch them. The key thing is I'm trying to save my best attention for the most productive and rewarding tasks.

So have I gained anything? I think I have - my agency, my autonomy and my attention, to give to the things that deserve it. If my email notification behaviour is in fact a bug, I hope Google doesn't fix it.