Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants is an exploration of the nature of technology and our relationship to it. The book begins with the story of Kelly’s own peculiar relationship, going from very minimal technology adoption to covering the cutting edge after co-founding Wired magazine. He also covered outliers such as the Amish, whose technological adoption is very particular and poorly understood by the general public.
The bottom line, for Kelly, is that we must all find our own strategies for technological adoption that we will be comfortable and satisfied with. What follows is but one strategy that seeks to specifically address the concerns raised by Carr and Clay Johnson and others about the cognitive and physiological effects that our information consumption patterns can have on us.
In order to get the best of both worlds, spend most of your time with technology focusing on specific tasks for long periods, and then block out much shorter periods of taking in as much of the web as you can bear. This approach is in line with Nassim Taleb’s “barbell strategy” in that it involves combining two extremes to achieve the best possible balance. You want to be able to dig deep into certain subjects and activities, but you also want to harness the web to its fullest as a discovery and serendipity machine.
The focused periods are hard to stick to, especially at first. If you are already in the habit of frequently checking your email or immediately looking at whatever has sent you a notification, then according to Carr you have wired your brain to seek that routine. A few minutes into attempting to read a book, you may find yourself desiring to check updates on your phone. Don’t give into that urge—that will only make it harder to build a new routine. Eventually, you can train your brain to get used to the new approach.
Do yourself a favor by turning off most, if not all, of your notifications. You can check everything during the time you have set aside to do so specifically. If there’s an emergency, someone will call you. The people on Twitter and Facebook and reaching out to you via email do not need you to answer right now. Allowing every little thing they say to you to jump in front of your face will just derail whatever it is you’re trying to focus on.
Read long pieces and books. Engage in binge learning, then follow up with binge creating. Go through the Udacity courses on programming, and then start some programming projects that interest you—and see them through. Get through your Instapaper queue and then write a series of essays—and limit how often you check the number of views they received. Read through the Make Magazine archive and then start a Raspberry Pi project. Read through the entire archive of your favorite photo-blogger, and then go out and find things to take pictures of yourself, and put together posts about them. Go through all of the online works of an artist you like and attempt to make a pastiche in their honor using Photoshop.
The periods of intense interaction with the web will be relatively easier to handle, but you shouldn’t slack off here either. Work on curating an RSS reader account that mines the long tail of web content for gems. Try to find longreads that seem promising to put in your Readability or Instapaper account for your focused periods. Scour the social web not only for content, but for potential conversations to either jump into or start. Make sure these are conversations are not of the angry Internet variety. Instead, only invest your time in conversations you are likely to walk away from feeling that you have gained something, be it new knowledge, food for thought, or the simple enjoyment of connecting with another human being.
Cut news out of your information diet entirely. It is worthless. Anything really important will bubble up to you through social channels; as will most unimportant things, unfortunately. Focus on the information and stories that are persistent rather than ephemeral. There are essays and books that cover the same topics as news outlets—and much, much more—in greater detail and with actual context. Free yourself from the news.
In my experience, it gets easier to stick to your focused periods, and you also get better at finding quality stuff during your surfing time. This approach may not work for everyone, but I think there is some approach that does, and addresses Carr’s cognitive concerns.
Carr’s rhetoric is extreme, but his position is nothing more than a technical way of saying that current technological adoption trends are fostering bad habits. The answer is not to despair the rise of 140 character communication. Rather, the answer is to focus on building new habits and curating better information diets.