Dedigitalizing a Digital Native

Do 20 September 2018

By Marcel Neidinger Filed under Blog

An Interesting Observation

The past few years have been an interesting journey. If in 1000 years there would be a museum stature showing a digital native in his natural habit I am very certain a picture of me in my flat would fit. I am in possession of multiple computers, gaming consoles, a smartphone, and a tablet. Most of these devices are running at the same time. I recently caught myself "watching" a TV show. All good until now but at the same time I had my laptop open to some webpage on my lap and was currently fudging with an app on my phone. I would love to tell you what TV show I was watching but honestly, I can't. Neither do I remember what web page I was looking at nor what I was reading on my phone. When I am not writing on here I am also a student and as such rely on being able to concentrate for extended periods of time. And you know what? That is increasingly HARD. I recently did a little experiment I challenge everyone to repeat: Set a timer to 30 minutes and then start reading until the timer goes. If you can't resist the urge to look at the timer note down the time you think has passed and then look at it. For me, the result was disturbing. Only 13 minutes in it felt like at least 25 minutes must have passed. Multiple times I caught my thoughts wandering off to something else. Usually, this something else had something to do with either my phone, my tablet or my laptop and in all cases involved the internet.

This is what set me on a track to think more about attention and what I do on a daily basis. After all, this was a book I liked. This wasn't a course on probabilistic algorithms I had to take. What would my brain do when it was confronted with, to formulate it politely, dry content and more importantly: What would it be able to do with more focus?

Everything on the internet is optimized to grab your attention and keep it as long as possible. Dead trees with some ink on it are in an armsrace with systems that, backed by the power of thousands of computer and fed on gigabytes of your usage data, try to squeeze every minute of attention out of you. You don't need a supercomputer to predict the outcome of this race.

After reading Deep Work by Cal Newport, a book I recommend everyone to read, it already dawned on me that the overuse of digital media might be a disturbing factor. So I observed and BOY am I addicted. I rarely went anywhere without some sort of audio entertainment, be it podcasts or audiobooks playing in the background. I would listen to stuff while reading an article. I would spend countless hours zapping through pictures on sites like Reddit or watch mindless 3-minute videos on YouTube. If instant pleasure is just a click away, why bother with business before pleasure? My mind was always busy never having time to calm down and think. Think about ideas. Think about important questions or just be bored for some time. This needed to change.

Cabin in the Woods likely isn't the answer

So cabin in the woods then? Well, I am still a computer scientist and while I see digitalization in my personal life hypercritical I still believe in the benefits for our society. There are countless examples both in the industry as well as personal live where digitalization helped people to connect. Also, my working life revolves around sitting in front of a computer and typing things into a keyboard while staring at a screen. I can't and (more importantly) I don't want to ditch the digital world. My solution: Cut digital media where it is not necessary: In my private life. Here I can give my brain space to think. For me, this means

I try to avoid every unnecessary digital technology. To see how far I can push myself I even ditched my beloved ToDo app in favor of cold hard paper. For entertainment instead of reading "The one fact you have to know about Jon Snow" I read actual books. Quite a lot of them. I also still watch Netflix but now, instead of "focusing" on three screens at the same time I really watch the show/film. Instead of spending countless hours chatting with someone I call or if possible meet up with them in person. To summarize I now use both my phone and the internet for what both really are: Useful devices for work and not for entertainment purposes.

The result

The results? Thus far I am happy. My attention span has easily doubled or tripled and I feel like I go through my life much more relaxed and happy then I was before. I had some actual thoughts and formed ideas. Something that did not happen during the dark age of the screens. Do I miss something? Maybe. In the beginning, I had a constant feeling of "missing out". Missing out on the latest news. Missing out on some dog video. But now? Not so much. I realized pretty quickly that most of the stuff I consumed was non-sensical. To check I developed a simple but quite effective method. I'd just ask myself one or two hours after consuming what I remembered about the media I consumed. Most of the time the answer was: Nothing. Is there value in something that you forget about only a few moments later? Sure there might be entertainment value but I feel like there is a multitude of equally (if not more) entertaining activities like reading a book, going out with a friend or doing sports out there. Activities that actually last. Activites that happen in the world around you while YOU look at your tiny 5-inch screen. Maybe it's your time to disconnect aswell.