Tag Archives: Technology

Why the Internet is so distracting to writers, and why it is not

Reams have been written about how writers find Internet very distracting and how they are not able to write, especially in the era of social networking. There is actually a name for the fear of being left behind and it is called FOMO – the fear of missing out. But I think it is easier to blame it on the Internet and people are not going to find the right solution unless they properly understand the problem.

Internet can be a distraction, surely, but is it really a distraction that you cannot avoid? Is it really so important for you to constantly check your Facebook and Twitter updates and if you don’t check them, something drastic is going to happen? More than distraction, Internet is one’s way to procrastination, and this sense of procrastination is amplified in the case of writers because writing is a cerebral activity and unless you have got tons of things to say it is one of the most difficult things to do. So what do you do? When you’re not able to write you start surfing the web.

Distractions have always been there. When there was no Internet, there was something else. There was TV. There was the VCR. There were books and magazines. CDs and cassettes. In every era distractions have been there.

In Hamlet’s BlackBerry the author William Powers cites an ancient incident that took place between Socrates and his friend Phaedrus. When Socrates accidentally bumps into Phaedrus, Phaedrus has just listened to the lectures of one of the most reputed orators of that time and Socrates wants to know what was said. Phaedrus has made some notes but the art of writing is just in its early stages and orthodox people like Socrates find it very distracting, so instead of reading he would like Phaedrus to recite the entire lecture to him. But they find the hubbub of the city very distracting. They head to the nearby stream beyond the city walls so that while Socrates is listening to the lecture, there are no distractions. Both of them lament the fact that while being in the city it is very difficult to concentrate and focus because there are simply too many distractions.

They didn’t even know how to write and they were already feeling distracted and consequently, overwhelmed, back in 400 BC.

So why is it so acute in the era of the Internet?

The easiness.

Since almost every writer these days uses a computer or one of the devices that can easily connect to the Internet all you have to do is click on an icon and there you go. In the beginning you just want to peek into the kingdom of distraction and before you know it, you are sucked into it by the vacuum of avoidance. You see, this is not distraction because nothing important ever happens on the Internet unless some catastrophe, major sports event or some political controversy is going on. We know that. Still we let the Internet distract us and stop us from writing. Why? Because you don’t want to write and you can easily blame it on the Internet. Remember the movie Blame It on Rio?

Technology as a whole can be blamed for this perpetual state of distraction rather than just the Internet. Technology makes it quite easy to get distracted. You don’t have to get up to indulge in various distracting activities. You can watch movies. You can play games. You can check status updates. You can chat with people. You can check your email and reply. You can shop. You can read and watch news. You can listen to music. And, you can write.

This, was something that was not available previously. In order to be distracted, you had to move away from your table because you could not possibly keep everything on your table. Whether you’re using a laptop, a computer or a Tablet PC, your every content consumption and communication need is being met with via a single device. This is the fundamental problem. The easiness of doing everything.

But I digressed. It is not the distraction that is a problem for writers, it is a reluctance to write. They have to deal with that. Are you distracted if you’re watching an interesting movie? Do you check your emails and Facebook updates in the middle of watching your favorite movie? You don’t. This is because you are totally engaged. You are very interested. You’re feeling stimulated.

Being distracted by the Internet is a secondary problem. The primary problem is whether you want to write or not. If you really want to write, nothing can distract you. If I’m not wrong, JK Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter book sitting in a cafeteria bubbling with noises and activities. If that is not distraction, what is?

The Shallows: A Review

The full name of the book is “The Shallows: How the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember”.

For a very long time I had this opinion that the next generation is always intellectually superior to the previous generation. As I observed children around me with greater attentiveness, I began to get this feeling that these kids are not as smart as we used to be. More aware, yes, perhaps. Smarter the way they talk and respond, maybe. More worldly wise, I don’t know. But they are certainly not more intelligent and wise. Of course exceptions are always there and it’s just a few that make the big difference, but nonetheless, the overall intelligence has reduced rather than increasing.

For the past few decades people have been blaming this on the idiot box. But do you know that when writing was being invented (or developed) there were people who opposed this technology? For instance, Socrates believed that when people learn to write, they use their brain less because they can inscribe the information on something solid rather than using their brain to memorize it. Even in his wildest dreams he couldn’t have thought of the Internet in particular and technology in general.

Technology has been a mainstay of my professional life. I earn my livelihood from the Internet. It matters to me a lot how people respond to technology and how technology evolves. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that the more we become dependent upon technology the less we use our own abilities. I started noticing this a decade ago when I used to interact in various writing forums. People didn’t want to read long texts. A slight appearance of “difficult” words put them off the writing. They wanted everything simplified. Simple sentences, easier words, straightforward expressions and uncomplicated thinking were more in demand rather than complex thoughts and literary expressions. This was mainly because they were getting used to reading text on the computer or laptop screens.

Anyway, when I came across “The Shallows” I immediately found myself agreeing to most of what the writer, Nicholas Carr, has written. Throughout the book he warns the readers how more and more thinking and intellectual analyzing is being outsourced to machines. Rather than gaining knowledge we preserve it so that we can retrieve it whenever there is need. Carr calls the technology-dominated generation the “shallows” because he believes that they are incapable of deep thinking.

Many technologists and scientists, as Nicholas Carr has cited, believe that this is much more efficient way of managing information rather than putting everything into the unreliable neurons beeping inside your brain. Just imagine, millions and millions of terabytes of data can be accessed within microseconds. Suppose the sand on a beach is the information and there is a particular grain of sand you need to find. With computers you can easily do that. This, undoubtedly, is great advantage.

Throughout the book, although he laments the lack of deep thinking amidst the contemporary generation, he doesn’t blame the technology, he blames the way we use it. Therefore he can easily distinguish between technology that stunts our intellectual growth and technology that enhances it.

Books and printing press were great technologies. They brought knowledge and wisdom to people who did not have access to them prior to the printed word. Getting copies of preserved knowledge used to be very tedious and expensive exercise because people either prepared copies manually or they memorized long texts of knowledge and information. As the book and printing technologies progressed, it became less expensive to have a book. Eventually there came a time when even people who are not rich could have small libraries at their homes. The printing press, primarily invented by Gutenberg, literally changed the world. Rather than stunting our intellectual growth, it democratized it.

At a personal level I believe the Internet also does the same thing. It democratizes dissemination of information and empowers people. Whether it is blogging, social networking and video sharing, we can all become publishers in minutes. You don’t have to invest much. There is no longer a monopoly of a few on the thought process. For example, conventional journalists, politicians and authors are constantly lamenting the spread of social networking and blogging because they enable everybody to express opinions, and that too, instantly.

Various studies, according to the book, have revealed that we’re constantly being distracted without even realizing, especially when we are working in a hypertext environment. As you go through zillions of pages you come across links to various other pages. Most people end up clicking those links and never come back to the original text. But even if you don’t click the links, unconsciously your brain is being distracted. It is absorbing all the information being thrown at you in the form of pop-ups, banner ads, sidebar navigation links, hyperlinks in the middle of the text, images popping up here and there, videos embedded into the text and social sharing buttons. This exhausts our brain immeasurably. Consequently, we cannot focus for a long time. All we’re doing is, jumping from one place to another without actually reading and assimilating the information. When was the last time you read a complete web page consisting 1000 words?

On the printed page, on the other hand, people can easily read long texts without feeling bogged down.

A small problem in the book is that the author goes into lots of technicalities trying to explain how memory is stored in the brain and which areas store long-term and short-term memory and how memory is hardwired. He also explains, in copious scientific terms, how the plasticity of the brain enables you to quickly adapt according to new stimulations, habits and environments. While reading these portions sometimes you forget why you are reading the book.

Other than this small problem, this is an excellent book if you want to understand how the Internet is impacting our thinking. I am reading multiple books on the same topic because I believe that our children are going to grow in a web of technologies. There are many schools in the West who have already started eliminating books and insisting that students carry laptops and Tablet PCs to the school. This is good. The problem arises when there is too much dependence on such technologies.

Take for instance the mobile phone. It is a boon. You are always connected. I’m really thrilled when I see a hawker or a vegetable vendor on the road wielding a mobile phone. It is enchanting to see the laborer working at a construction site talking to someone on his mobile phone and you can make out that he or she is talking to some loved one.

But then mobile phone is also turning us into individual islands. When people are travelling in trains and buses they hardly communicate with fellow passengers. They’re all busy with their mobile phones. Even people walking on the road are deeply engrossed and they hardly throw a glance at other people.

Similarly, it matters to us how many Facebook or Twitter friends we have but it doesn’t bother us much if people in our own neighborhoods don’t know us.

These are not esoteric, leisurely issues. They pose real, existential social problems because eventually we are living in a real-world and not in the cyber world. When tragedy strikes, we will physically and mentally have to coordinate with people around us and not with people on Facebook and Twitter.

So as our children grow in a technology-driven world, we will have to teach them that they are in control, not technology. Thinking cannot be replaced by computers. It’s we who define our behavior, and not technology. Technology has its place, but so does the real-life that has evolved over thousands of years. We need to teach our children how to sit for a couple of hours, without doing anything, just thinking about things, and there is nothing wrong in it. We need to tell them that quietude and inactivity are as natural as constant interaction and sensory stimulations.

Google Mashup on Lok Sabha Elections 2009

Google, in collaboration with Hindustan Times, has launched a mashup website on the upcoming Lok Sabha Elections in 2009. You can get all the updates and political news. If you select your area you can obtain candidate profiles, the demographics of the area like how many households have electricity and how many our below the poverty line etc.

election-mashup

But the shady aspect is that the website is mostly tailored to promote the HT agenda and in fact when I conducted a few searches the highlighted candidate profiles mostly belonged to the Congress. Even the news headlines from HT are “colored”. But this can be a nice inspiration for other parties and organizations to start such online information resources.