Friends have shared an article titled Why Can’t We Read Anymore – and: ouch! I thought I was the only one who somehow wasn’t getting anything done.
We worry about kids having too much “screen time”, but a few books and articles like this one have pointed out that digital media has had a terrible impact on adults as well.
I’ve never been a good reader, but in the last few years I’ve noticed every corner of my life running into the same obstacles that make reading difficult for me: distractions, lame opportunities, and low-level anxiety that demands an immediate, counterproductive, and very temporary fix.
Some solutions are practical: I used to charge my phone beside my bed, but it was too tempting to consult it for the flimsiest of reasons. I now charge it in another room. (I think of this as my “twelve-steps-away program.”)
Some of the obstacles are also practical. Having a kid adds a lot to the to-do list, so when I collapse into bed I’m already running late.
But the onslaught of muck no longer feels like a kind of wealth; it feels like an assault on my goals and well-being. Instead of strategies for managing my investments, I’m now thinking about self-defense.
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Online publications lose money when you read two paragraphs without clicking. They’re desperate to keep you clicking, but they have no incentive to keep you reading. Even prestigious publications over a century old now interrupt their own articles to promote new links you may wish to read instead.
It is no longer necessary to have Attention Deficit Disorder: the world now simulates it for you.
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Willpower is fine when I’m lifting weights, but it’s the first thing I lose when I’m trying to relax.
If I’m not relaxed, I can’t sleep, do creative work, or enjoy myself – but there’s something I can do: try to relax.
And the quickest way to try to relax is to seek feedback and reassurance that I’m somehow on the right track, heading toward real safety.
And the quickest way to do *that* is to find some tiny new goal that I can accomplish immediately. And that’s why I check my email, or read Facebook, or read the news, or find some website that churns out a stream of new material.
I need to find ways to relax that don’t require me to seek reassurance. That has to come from somewhere else.
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Human beings evolved to crave fat and sugar – because we need small amounts of both, and fat and sugar are hard to come by in the wilderness.
In our industrial world, however, both are superabundant, and excessive consumption of each is among our most serious health concerns.
Information works the same way. We’ve evolved to crave new information, which for most of human history would have given us practical, strategic and social advantages. Now, an excess of available information can be a terrible obstacle: with limited time and attention, we ingest only the loudest and most convenient bits of information.
Relevance and practical value still determine which information we set out to find – but when the information brings itself to us, we evaluate its importance on a vastly different scale.
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Every technological advance shifts and magnifies the problem it tries to solve. Cars shorten our 1-mile trips to work, so we move 30 miles away from work. Faster computers breed more complex software and bigger data files which take longer to process. Cell phones are much more convenient and portable, and nowhere near as reliable or audibly clear, as old-fashioned land lines.
We treat every new technology like a substitute teacher, pushing it to its limits in an effort to expand our own.
We push our limits in other ways too. Anyone who’s maxed out a $10,000 credit card will probably max out the $20,000 credit card that replaces it. We adapt to changing environments by allowing the environment to set our limits.
This strategy works very well when our own limits exceed those imposed by the environment. But when the environment imposes no limits, our natural habit is to overextend ourselves to keep up: we eat more, spend more, gather and collect more instead of using, digesting, reading, saving and building with what we already have.
These habits work to our advantage when resources are rare – but when resources are plentiful, our devotion to gathering and coordinating with them enslaves us to unnecessary tasks.
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When the wheels on an icy road start to skid, the driver must “turn the wheels in the direction of the skid”. The driver will regain control not by resisting the change in direction, but by welcoming it as vital feedback from the road and the car.
Why do I get so little done? Because I’m trying to get so much done. By accepting that my energy, schedule, body and mind have limits – and by accepting those limits as vital feedback – I can use each of them more effectively.
Many inspiring anecdotes dismiss “limitations” as psychological obstacles that hold us back. But every achievement requires a great respect for, and understanding of, the environment in which the achievement takes place. Disregarding human limitations usually means throwing away important and useful knowledge of the environment, its riches, and its dangers.
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The article offers a practical resolution: turn off the internet, leave the cell phone in another room, and concentrate for a set time to a single task. Reading a book is the ideal activity, since our moments of mental isolation are immediately rewarded. Through written words, we find a more perfect union with another mind.
Human beings have embraced this idea for centuries: the Sabbath is a time when the practical demands of our environment are NOT allowed to shape who we are. If religious practice seems like a cumbersome addition to many Sabbath traditions, it may at least show how far we human beings have always had to go to correct for our own habit of allowing the arbitrary demands of society, culture and technology to govern our experience of and conduct through life.
Whatever form our devotion takes, however, we must learn to choose our own limits instead of letting them be set by the environment. The environment, unfortunately, does not have our best interests in mind; it is not to be trusted. This may be where economic theories of free markets and “invisible hands” lose touch with reality. It may be why some spiritual traditions describe the worlds we live in as wicked or illusiory. Whatever unfortunate steps human beings have taken to seize control of the outside influences on our lives, however, we can at least acknowledge that they recognized something dangerous, and a legitimate need to get away.