I have been an enthusiastic adopter of online communication tools since I first accessed the internet in the early 1990s. At the time, I was so focused on what I gained from having access anytime and anywhere that I didn’t consider the impact of that convenience on my attention and engagement with the nonvirtual world.
I also could not have predicted how social media and app developers would later design their products to be addictive using many of the same techniques that casinos use to get people to spend mindless hours gambling. Over time, I began to see the unhealthy pull of technology on my attention, whether it was spending hours scrolling through feeds or the Pavlovian way a new email would drag me off task and into my inbox.
I think many of us are uneasy about our relationships with online technologies, whether it’s the time we spend on them, the fragmented state of our attention, or how using them makes us feel. During this pandemic, these technologies have suddenly become more critical than ever to support our work and keep in touch with friends and family. I find great professional value in tools like Slack and Twitter, and I’d like to believe that there’s a way to conquer the addictive and distracting aspects of them without needing to take a technology sabbatical or quitting them altogether.
Two books have recently helped open my eyes to other ways of interacting with technology and taking greater control over my own attention. Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Melville House, 2019) is a meditation on the value of fallow time, countering the notion that we should always strive toward greater productivity and self-optimization. She writes about her own dissatisfaction “with untrained attention, which flickers from one new thing to the next, not only because it is a shallow experience, or because it is an expression of habit rather than will, but because it gives me less access to my own human experience.” Odell doesn’t prescribe specific actions. She instead writes about how she explicitly chooses to pay attention to things she values, like birds, art, and her community. She shows it’s possible to forge healthier relationships with technology and be more present in our lives.
Paying attention to what I pay attention to has helped me see the problems with my own use of technology.
University of Washington iSchool professor David M. Levy’s Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives (Yale University Press, 2016) provided me with the tools to better understand what needs to change about my technology use. The book includes mindfulness exercises that have helped me observe how the tech I use regularly impacts my attention, affecting my productivity and emotional well-being. “In performing these exercises,” he writes, “people regularly discover that they can take greater charge of their online lives.” Better understanding how we use technology and what isn’t serving us well will help us design our individual prescription for creating a more present and aware relationship with technology.
Paying attention to what I pay attention to has helped me see the problems with my own use of technology. I’ve turned off nearly every notification on my phone and keep my work email off it. I’ve deleted some social media accounts and use others much more sparingly and intentionally now. Most importantly, I’m more aware of my own behaviors and committed to not letting technologies pull me away from people and activities I care about.
Just as we’re all different, there is no one-size-fits-all relationship with technology that maximizes the benefits and limits the harmful aspects. Right now, while so much of our work and personal lives are lived online, it’s never been more important to take control of our attention and be mindful of how and what we choose to focus on.