Posts Tagged 'the internet'

Death by Information link dump

Ask and you shall receive. Well, sort of. After my first post on suboptimal internet use, I’ve noticed a number of other bloggers talking about that problem. At the bottom of this post, Chris Hayes talks about his internet use, and here’s Ezra Klein’s take. I assume more will follow. From Hayes’ post, I caught wind of two applications, Freedom and Anti-Social, that are a first rough hack at the sort of software I was calling for in my post (essentially, they lock you out of the internet or certain websites for a certain period of time that you set). But by far the most interesting piece I’ve read is by Paul Graham, about the addictiveness of the internet, which I think has implications beyond just the internet (and which I’m surprised isn’t discussed at all in the social sciences blogosphere). Money quote:

as the world becomes more addictive, the two senses in which one can live a normal life will be driven ever further apart. One sense of “normal” is statistically normal: what everyone else does. The other is the sense we mean when we talk about the normal operating range of a piece of machinery: what works best.

These two senses are already quite far apart. Already someone trying to live well would seem eccentrically abstemious in most of the US. That phenomenon is only going to become more pronounced. You can probably take it as a rule of thumb from now on that if people don’t think you’re weird, you’re living badly.

That last point, if true, is going to be a tough one to wrestle with, since we don’t yet really have a firm sense of what is living well or badly in the modern world, the way we do with say, alcohol consumption or other addictive vices.

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Death by entertainment

[by JSC5]

I can’t help but take issue with some things my colleague says in his interesting post, “Death by information“.

First, our points of agreement. I, too, think that we as a culture are far behind the learning curve in terms of our ability to successfully integrate into our lives the massive amount of new information that the web makes available. The dopamine rush of clicking the next link, reading the next email, reading that next little piece of insightful analysis of today’s news … that’s all very real.

Where I part ways with JSC7 is where I look for a solution. He calls for technologies that give our internet experience more structure, with pre-commitments to self-limit time or locations while online. That seems a bit off to me.

The problem isn’t so much “death by information” but rather “death by entertainment“. We shouldn’t treat the next item in the RSS feed or the next email in the inbox as information that we’re gathering in a (misguided) attempt to make ourselves more productive. Instead, we should treat the next unread item in the RSS feed as entertainment, pure and simple. It’s not the case that we were thirsty and came to the internet faucet for a drink of water and just end up lingering a longer than is optimal. Instead, we were bored and went into the Internet Saloon for a drink, and our drunkeness is the predictable result.

One outcome of looking at the problem as death by entertainment rather than information is that the obstacle to optimizing internet use isn’t necessarily structure, but rather personal creativity and imagination. While bars are fun and great places to pass the time, all but the most incorrigible souses agree that it’s just not healthy for a bar to be the main source of entertainment. There’s a bunch of other great places to find entertainment, like triple-A ball parks, Do-It-Yourself artisan groups, folk music festivals, and so on. It seems to me that we all overconsume bars and underconsume all the other great entertainment options — not because we’re alcoholics, but because it’s an easy, sure place to find some fun without having do the work of scrolling through the list of alternatives and picking one.

To bring this back to the internet, I guess the lesson is that online communication can be great for spreading information and increasing productivity. But my personal overconsumption over the internet has little to do with the information I’m getting and everything to do with my failings as a creative, active pursuer of entertainment. I have all the tools I need to structure my online experience. It’s just that sometimes I’m simply not creative enough to find better modes of entertainment than reading the day’s news and commentary.

So maybe the solution isn’t additional technologies to structure the internet experience. Maybe the solution is additional effort in cataloging, searching, and settling on alternative modes of entertainment. The relevant barriers there are in higher entry costs, uncertainty, and inconvenient access.

Death by information

The Web 2.0 age has always had its fair share of Luddites warning about the dangers of an expanding web. There have been Matrix-alluding pronouncements about the Intertubes taking over our life, social groups warning us about the demise of normal sexual relations stemming from porn that’s available faster than a cup of Ramen, and countless parents Twittering about how their kids are on their damn devices during dinner. I think most rational people tended to ignore these arguments, because apocalyptic pronouncements have probably followed every new major technology. Instant porn is here to stay; we figured we just have to get used to using in ways that are optimal. There is probably going to be a learning curve, but the only choice we have is to climb it.

Here’s what I think: whatever that curve is, we’ve proved really bad at climbing it. The anecdotal evidence is in cases like those SEC guys, high-up white collar professionals, who spent whole days downloading and burning to DVDs more pornography than they could ever consume. Increasingly though, there’s scientific research pointing to the same direction, like that discussed in this article about how being wired changes our brain. To be honest, the experiments themselves aren’t entirely convincing, and the conclusions verge on the extreme, but the basic premise is, I think, an interesting one. Basically, every time we see a new bit of information available for us, like a new e-mail or a new blog post on your favorite blog (no, really, you’re too kind), it gives us a little dopamine injection, an injection that we become accustomed to and learn to crave.

Here’s an experiment for you to do: wait until the most boring part of the day at work, like 4 pm (or 9 pm, if you’re in i-banking), and open your personal e-mail in a tab in your browser (if you don’t have it open already). Go to another tab, and go about your business. Wait for an e-mail come in, for the little (1) to appear in your Gmail tab (or, if you’re less organized, for the (564) to turn to (565)). Now see how long you can go without checking what that e-mail is. Can you go 10 minutes? 30 minutes? An hour? I usually give up after 15.

Here’s the problem with checking stuff out on the internet: it offers small, randomly placed rewards at almost no cost. When I’m bored, there’s a list of websites I’ll run through, even when I’m pretty sure there’s nothing interesting on them. Sometimes I refresh the stats page on this blog. If the number has increased, I get that small burst of dopamine (see how important you guys are?). How many of you can honestly say that you check Facebook the optimal number of times per day? If someone told you that you could only check Facebook one time a day, you might be annoyed, but would you really feel like you were getting less information than you wanted about what your friends were doing? To phrase it differently, do you feel like you’re not getting enough information today?

For me, at least, the answer is no. Assuming I’m not the only person with this answer, why are people so obsessed with smart phones and iPads? We’re breaking more and more ground in terms of being able to access information faster and from any location, and yet I don’t most people would say that they’re truly obtaining or using that information optimally. Unless you need it for work, you probably don’t need to be any more connected with the Web 2.0 world than you already are. If you’re anything like me, you probably want more structure rather than more quantity. And yet the only products we’re developing are ones that increase quantity.

I’m shocked that we haven’t come up with software that allows us to self-limit internet use. Right now, if you’re considering toning down your internet use, all you have is this Manichean choice between embracing your data-addiction and going cold turkey. In a world where people are having friends make up new passwords for their Facebook accounts so that they can’t access them anymore, is there no room for a simple bit of software that limits your ability to access to Facebook to certain specified hours? This software would be really easy to make, and yet, there’s nothing. Is anyone at Google reading this? Please?*

The basic idea of easily accessible information and social networking is great, but to make it really work it requires a level of organization and control that will take time to develop. Not to sound hokey or overly dramatic, but I bet someday we’ll look back at the current age of information gluttony like people today look back at the beginnings of the sexual revolution – a good idea that people got a little too excited about and ran off the rails. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go Google my name.

If you’re interested in the economics of being unable to self-limit ourselves, check out this paper on how higher cigarette taxes lead to greater self-reported happiness among smokers.


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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