The future is now: Douglas Coupland unveils why perception of time has changed

Douglas Coupland

Excerpt from this article:

Real Business recently went to Berlin to attend an intriguing event by Konica Minolta on the future, where author and scriptwriter Douglas Coupland unveiled some hard-hitting truths about technology shaping the way we think.

…Douglas Coupland told the audience how he found himself reading short stories instead of lengthy books. This is because the way we measure time has been distorted thanks to technology.

In the past, our perception of time was based on what we did during the day. That’s no longer the case, he explained: “I’ve been experiencing this temporal sensation that I just can’t shake. Here’s why: Until recently, the future was something that lay ahead of us. It was something we anticipated and even dreaded. Somewhere down the line the present melted into the future. We’re now living inside the future 24/7. It’s what I call the superfuture.”

This time displacement has occured because we no longer need to remember directions or algorithms to process data. Data has become the supreme ruler of time, making us measure the day through images, spreadsheets and mp3’s – and it’s made “real time” a scary place to live in. Imagine the chaos that would unravel if technology were to crash.

“How I miss my pre-internet brain!” he said.

See also this article on the writer’s talk.

How I Got My Attention Back

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For twenty-eight days this winter I lived on the grounds of an old estate down in central Virginia, next to a town called — terrifyingly — Lynchburg, making good on a residency I had been offered by the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. I had done other residencies before, and knew in order to eke out maximum productivity, internet disconnection was nonnegotiable. And so it began, the day after the election: my month without the internet.

It felt like a cop-out—like I wasn’t allowed to escape the “real world” so easily. But the quieter my mind became, and the deeper I went into my own work, the more I realized how my always-on, always-connected state had rendered me largely useless.

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” wrote Blaise Pascal. Did any of us remember how to sit quietly, alone, without a phone in hand? I certainly didn’t. By the time the curtain closed on act one of our political tragedy, if there was action to be taken, I was in no state to take it. I had long since lost control of my attention.

The Perils of Peak Attention

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Two new books assess the quality of our digital lives: How do we shake off the village when we carry the world in our pocket?

Early on in The Attention Merchants, Tim Wu’s startling and sweeping examination of the increasingly ubiquitous commercial effort to capture and commodify our attention, we are presented with a sort of cognitive paradox: To pay attention to one thing we need to screen other things out. But that very “capacity to ignore,” as Wu puts it, “is limited by another fact: We are always paying attention to something.” It is these “in between” moments, when our attention may be about to shift from one thing to another, that the attention merchants have long sought to colonize—in everything from nineteenth-century Parisian street posters to the twenty-first century’s “long flight of ad-laden clickbaited fancy.”

… We are these days, suggests Laurence Scott in his pensive, provocative book, The Four-Dimensional Human, “inhabiting space in a way that could be called four-dimensional.” The lines between the physical and online—still so robust when getting on AOL for one’s five hours a month meant an aching process of dialing up a working local access number via a creaking modem—have been virtually erased. We no longer “surf” the internet, Scott notes, because we are always already submerged by the waves.

One of the implications here is that it is not only looking at the screen that consumes our attention, as in the old days, for the screen has changed the way we look at the world. It is the way we think of Twitter excerpts as we read an article, or pre-frame the world in Instagram-worthy moments—as Scott notes, our phones “consume” concerts and dinner before we do, while “the real, biologically up-to-the-minute ‘me’ thus becomes a ghost of my online self.” It is our strange view, intimate yet indirect, of people’s Potemkin collages on Facebook—“a place of full-frontal glimpses, where we encounter the periphery head on,” writes Scott. It is the way we worry offline about what has happened online (Did my post get any likes?), and how what is online can cause us to worry about what is happening offline. A friend recently told me how his teenage daughter had not been invited to the weekend gathering of a few of her friends. At one time, the snub, hurtful though it may have been, would have been encountered only on Monday morning (You guys did what?); now, however, she watched her friends’ weekend unfold on Instagram, a live crawl of social anxiety.

 

The End of Reflection

Illustration by Jon Han

Excerpt from this article:

There are many moments throughout my average day that, lacking print reading material in a previous era, were once occupied by thinking or observing my surroundings: walking or waiting somewhere, riding the subway, lying in bed unable to sleep or before mustering the energy to get up.

Now, though, I often find myself in these situations picking up my phone to check a notification, browse and read the internet, text, use an app or listen to audio (or, on rare occasions, engage in an old-fashioned “telephone call”). The last remaining place I’m guaranteed to be alone with my thoughts is in the shower.

“Finding moments to engage in contemplative thinking has always been a challenge, since we’re distractible,” said Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows.” “But now that we’re carrying these powerful media devices around with us all day long, those opportunities become even less frequent, for the simple reason that we have this ability to distract ourselves constantly.”

It is therefore “a reasonable conjecture,” Dr. Fleming said, if we think of navigating the world — physically, as a flâneur might, or mentally, when pondering something — as a “first task” and looking at one’s phone as a “second task,” that the latter hinders our capacity to reflect. “The prefrontal cortex is good at doing one thing at a time,” he said. “If you put people in a dual-task setting, part of the reason things become impaired is because that secondary task interferes with the functions involved in introspection.”

Nevertheless, he sees our current direction as indicative of “the loss of the contemplative mind,” he said. “We’ve adopted the Google ideal of the mind, which is that you have a question that you can answer quickly: close-ended, well-defined questions. Lost in that conception is that there’s also this open-ended way of thinking where you’re not always trying to answer a question. You’re trying to go where that thought leads you. As a society, we’re saying that that way of thinking isn’t as important anymore. It’s viewed as inefficient.”

 

My Month Without The Internet

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We have all accepted that eating well and exercising are important to be in great physical shape. We’re now also starting to take better care of our minds by managing our attention. Our own attention is a scarce commodity. Where we focus our attention is how we feed our minds. Going offline helps to clear things up a bit more for me. So in 2015, I completed my second transatlantic sailing trip.

Disengaging with your current mind-set and existing habits, such as checking our phones, takes time — it took me three to five days to start feeling disconnected from my day-to-day activities, even with the sailing keeping us crazy busy.

Going offline trains your attention by allowing you to only react to the information you currently have — with no addition from the external world. It’s the opposite of getting notifications.

Going back to work after a monthlong disconnected trip is something I’m very grateful for: It felt amazing and refreshing. The experience helped me have a gut-check of how everything felt to me and identify what projects and activities excites me most. When I got back, I made sure to start focusing on tasks that I enjoyed more, and on which I could have the most impact. Going offline was also great for my creativity. On most mornings, around 5 a.m., we would use our headlamps to write thoughts and ideas on paper — it helped me come up with new thoughts and business ideas.

You Won’t Finish This Article

A person browses through media websites on a computer on May 30, 2013.

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I’m going to keep this brief, because you’re not going to stick around for long. I’ve already lost a bunch of you. For every 161 people who landed on this page, about 61 of you—38 percent—are already gone. You “bounced” in Web traffic jargon, meaning you spent no time “engaging” with this page at all.

So here’s the story: Only a small number of you are reading all the way through articles on the Web. I’ve long suspected this, because so many smart-alecks jump in to the comments to make points that get mentioned later in the piece. But now I’ve got proof… Schwartz’s data shows that readers can’t stay focused. The more I type, the more of you tune out. And it’s not just me. It’s not just Slate. It’s everywhere online. When people land on a story, they very rarely make it all the way down the page. A lot of people don’t even make it halfway. Even more dispiriting is the relationship between scrolling and sharing. Schwartz’s data suggest that lots of people are tweeting out links to articles they haven’t fully read. If you see someone recommending a story online, you shouldn’t assume that he has read the thing he’s sharing.

 

 

Why Grandma’s Sad (A Response to the Article on Screen Addiction)

Following up on yesterday’s post about Kids and Screen Addiction, the article excerpted below argues that “what’s happening on all these screens is not, as the writer suggests, an endless braindead Candy Crush session, but a rich social experience of its own” [link to the full write-up, and see also this post on Kottke on the debate]:

That screen is full of friends, and its distraction is no less valuable or valid than the distraction of a room full of buddies or a playground full of fellow students. Screen Addiction is, in this view, nonsensical: you can no more be addicted to a screen than to windows, sounds, or the written word.

This is an argument worth making, probably. But tell it to an anxious parent or an alienated grandparent and you will sense that it is inadequate. It is correct, yes, and it addresses their stated concerns. But those concerns—that the screens are poisoning families, that they’re making kids unhealthy and sedentary, that they’re destroying curiosity—were never really the issue. Screen Addiction is a generational complaint, and generational complaints, taken individually, are rarely what they claim to be. They are fresh expressions of horrible and timeless anxieties.

…The grandparent who is persuaded that screens are not destroying human interaction, but are instead new tools for enabling fresh and flawed and modes of human interaction, is left facing a grimmer reality. Your grandchildren don’t look up from their phones because the experiences and friendships they enjoy there seem more interesting than what’s in front of them (you). Those experiences, from the outside, seem insultingly lame: text notifications, Emoji, selfies of other bratty little kids you’ve never met. But they’re urgent and real. What’s different is that they’re also right here, always, even when you thought you had an attentional claim. The moments of social captivity that gave parents power, or that gave grandparents precious access, are now compromised.

All of this reminds me of a book that I read years ago, Everything Bad is Good For You, by Steven Johnson, who made a similar argument that parents were misguided in bemoaning the ways in which their kids were devoting rapt attention to TV and video games, i.e., what if a kid was spending hours sitting sedentary, reading a book? would they be as concerned?