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Tune Out, Turn Off: A Mantra Needed for Our Times?

Polygon

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The 2011 Pulitzer Prizes were announced recently, and I was thrilled to see that Nick Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains was a finalist in the general nonfiction category. I've known Nick for many years, and have become a fan of his writing and thinking. He's one of the world's most thoughtful observers of modern technology, bringing a well-stocked brain and a lively pen to his work.

He's usually more pessimistic than I am about technology's effects on business and society, so I started reading The Shallows (which has been called "Silent Spring for the literary mind") with a lot of skepticism. I thought I was in for a standard polemic about how "technology is rotting our brains," and I'm kind of tired of reading about how fill-in-the-blank is rotting our brains.

As I read his book and reflected about my own habits, though, I started to get the uneasy feeling that he was on to something fundamental. The brilliant technologists of the 2.0 Era have succeeded at getting us hooked on their offerings. They've rolled out hardware and software that are always available, that put us immediately in touch with friends, family, colleagues, and strangers, that are intuitive to use and inherently multimedia, and that present us with a constant stream of new content.

This is potent, addictive stuff, and as Nick points out it does not lend itself to deep thinking and sustained concentration. Instead, it leads us to frolic blithely in the shallows of his title, flitting from one activity to the next. This is fun and can be effective for getting some kinds of work done, but I think he's right that it's fundamentally incompatible with writing the Great American Novel, the insightful paper or report, the tight code, or the beautiful song. Wading in the shallows, in short, is incompatible with generating work of any depth, and deep work is more important, not less, in the complex world we've built.

As I've discussed these ideas, I've heard back from more than one Millennial that our shallows are their depths — that skipping among online communities and activities is actually contemplative for them, and that they can get sustained thinking done this way. To which I reply, as gently as possible, "nonsense."

The research on multitasking is piling up, and its conclusions are consistent and not optimistic. We need to stop kidding ourselves that there's a lot of intelligent life in the shallows.

So what can we do to bring back deep thinking? The remedy is easy to state and hard to accomplish: tune out and turn off. In an earlier post advocating this approach I quoted St. Augustine, and in Hamlet's Blackberry, one of the other great tech-related books of 2010, William Powers shows how it's been adopted by great thinkers from Plato to Thoreau.

I know this isn't easy when the technologies of distraction are so seductive, but it is important. I've heard of companies that turn off the Net during a set time each day to give their employees time to think, and I've had to learn to grab a good old-fashioned paper notebook and walk away from all my screens in order to get some real thinking done. Powers and his family go as far as disconnecting all weekend, every weekend. I'm not nearly that strong...

What have you learned to do to escape from the shallows? What personal or organizational policies have you found to be effective? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.

And when you're done, turn off the computer and pick up a book or a pencil.

Tune Out, Turn Off: A Mantra Needed for Our Times? - Andrew McAfee - Harvard Business Review


Very interesting article. Whenever I need to study I go to the library without a laptop, sit in the quiet room and do some work. Whenever I write it's with a pen and paper, not a computer (only for the final copy I use the comp). Anyone else do this? The internet is so distracting with youtube, facebook, online shopping, etc...

I think everyone needs some time alone without their computer/phone/internet.
 

_dangtx_

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writing on paper then on pc eats away some precious minutes/hours/days/etc...:)

also the 'ill put it on the pc tonight' that becomes next week :D
 

Perineum

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I know some people that could certainly stand to do that. They ignore everything (including children) just to see the latest profile updates on facebook. Makes me sick.

I get distracted from time to time when going to do something on the internet. However, once I find what I'm looking for I get good solid quiet time.

In the same respect I should probably get rid of the g/f too then, since she's distracting.... :thumb:
 

Arinoth

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As much as I enjoy the progress of technology there are some things I prefer in its "old" form. One such guilty pleasure of mine is reading novels in their actual paper back or hard cover version as i find it more distracting and harder to focus reading on even a tablet compared to a paper copy. If i am writing a report or anything that requires being on the computer I have a harder time if I'm at school then when I am at home at my own computer, able to focus better (for some reason), as well as play music at whatever level i want.

Facebook is browsed and used excessively by most students I see in computer labs on a daily basis and I've always felt they should have the site blocked or filtered during school works (for engineering thats 8:30am until 5:30pm)
 

thorn

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I agree with you Arinoth, I prefer to read books in paper form. The same thing with journal articles (f I need them for a project...) unless they are fairly short. I also can't do the 'go to the library and study thing.' I work far better at home, I can't study more than an hour or so in a row, so I need to be able to do something else.
 

Socrates_Johnston

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Waterloo
I just finished undergrad, and I changed my study habits drastically in the final two years of my program and it worked wonders for my GPA. For starters, I would shut down all electronic devices when reading and studying. I left my laptop and phone at home whenever I ventured to campus. If I did need to use my computer (for writing or reading), I would be sure to stay away from time-wasting websites like facebook, youtube, HWC, etc... the temptation is always there, but if you do not have the self-restraint to stay away from such vices when you have work to do...then your will is weak and you must change this.
 

Skyllz

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Ottawa
This is why I enjoy ATV rides or spending a day at the shooting range.

No cell, no computer, nothing. Just me, my ATV or that piece of paper i'm about to punch holes in.

Peace and serenity.
 

DkRk

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VanCity, B.C.
A few times a week, I disconnect, get in my beat up comfy chair, and read a novel or the Economist. Gets me thinking, and allows me time to just relax. Or I'll grab the motorcycle and head anywhere for a few hours to decompress if I'm stressed out.
 

10e

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Markham, Ontario
I have started reading novels and books again.

I think I'll add this one to the list.

Thanks Polygon!

I see a lot of that distracted attitude these days both with adults and kids, but it's worse with kids. They are used to finding everything they need at their finger tips with Google, but I see a lack of resourcefulness in situtations where they don't have access to these resources.

I know a lot of younger dudes that do not understand the value of duct tape :biggrin:
 

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