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New media and a culture of distracti- Squirrel!

A tweet from Rainn Wilson that appeared while writing this post.

Saturday, June 30, 9 a.m. –

The weekend is here. I don’t have a single commitment until work on Monday morning, and the forecast of rain and thunder means I’m likely to spend a considerable portion of the day on the couch.

But in this media climate, laziness rarely translates into a mental reprieve.

My desktop has several tabs open: a New York Times Magazine article on Hilary Clinton, a New Yorker piece examining of our reputation as the “entitlement generation,” and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s controversial essay in The Atlantic about progress for modern women. A notification appears for one of my three email accounts; Google Reader offers updates from favorite blogs about PR, soccer and international affairs; and Twitter sits to the side, smoothly updating as brands and companies around the world add to the live stream. I shuffle between iTunes and Spotify to find a relaxing playlist while I write this post. Silence is not an option.

Glancing over at my iPhone on the table, I consider connecting the HDMI cable that allows me to stream video from my laptop to a small Samsung TV across the room. In the absence of a monthly cable subscription, I rely heavily on services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go and – when those platforms aren’t enough – shady pirated streams from TV-links.com or surfthechannel.com. I don’t remember the last full movie I watched at home, but TV shows offer a more manageable alternative anyway. Mad Men and Game of Thrones never last more than an hour, and certain comedies will occupy just 20 minutes of my time.

Two books on the coffee table wait to be finished, their pages bunny-eared part of the way through. I’ve tried to focus on the text, but my mind tends to wander, craving something new and different after just a few pages.

In 2012, the sprawling landscape of technology and media is only exceeded by our own insatiable thirst for content. Type, click, swipe, scroll – with a few simple motions, I can transfer my attention among open tabs as quickly as it takes the machine to respond. StumbleUpon is the ultimate manifestation of our generation’s behavior online – simply add interests, click a button, and let the website bring page after page of unrelated content to you.

This ‘crisis of attention’ has drawn more interest in recent years, with Joe Kraus the most recent to challenge our notion of multi-tasking as a cultural ideal:

“Some people call switching our attention between things that vie for it “multi-tasking”. Like we’re a computer with dual cores running two simultaneous processes…Except that we’re not. Numerous brain-imaging studies have shown that what we call “multi-tasking” in humans, is not multi-tasking at all. Your brain is merely trying to rapidly switch its attention between two tasks. Back and forth, as quickly as it can.

It’s shown not only that we’re dumber when we do this (an average of 10 IQ points dumber – that’s the same as pulling an all-nighter.), but that we’re also 40% less efficient at whatever it is we’re doing.”

It’s proven that our ability to retain information is significantly reduced when it arrives through a digital medium. When we search for an answer on Google, our brain internalizes how to get the answer again rather than what the answer actually is. There is no incentive to remember content when it’s just a click away.

I just finished reading Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” a book written in 1985 about our society’s gradual shift towards a “culture of distraction.” Television was the new, disruptive medium at the time, but the Internet has reinforced his important message. From the prologue:

“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares. 

Visual representation of the contrast between Orwell and Huxley.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. 

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”

I read Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” as a companion to Postman’s examination. Where Postman offers a bemused and sarcastic tone to mock our complacency, Huxley’s warnings remain dark and ominous. They are much more real than 1984’s dystopia, and the consequences far more difficult to undo.

I’ve grown fonder of and more dependent on print media. Text and images remain neatly ordered on the page, so when I tear myself away from Wi-Fi and set aside the iPhone, I can fully engage the content in front of me. I still write to-do lists and take notes by hand, fully aware that this muscle memory is always more powerful than keystrokes on a laptop. And after spending eight hours each day in front of a computer screen for work, the last thing I want to do is sit down in front of another desktop.

Newspapers, magazines, books, notepads and pens – tangible items composed of merely paper and ink – must remain primary tools we use to consume knowledge. The Internet can unlock new ways to access that information. But if we are to internalize the content needed to inform and improve our world, it’s imperative that we also find a way to escape from our gluttonous culture of popular news and instant gratification.

It’s so very wrong to see a 140-character post about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes among reports of a fresh massacre in Syria. Because in that moment, the two items are equal in importance – the death of innocent civilians relegated to the same status as celebrity gossip.

Not every news bulletin is meant to be entertaining. Not every headline needs a sound effect to cue the appropriate emotion from viewers. And not every story can be told in 140 characters.

By all means, indulge – the internet is an incredible place with much to offer. But on occasion, also make that concerted, conscious effort to unplug and step away.

I will continue to immerse myself in the digital world: I love the ability to navigate several different tabs at once. And I love juggling my Twitter feed, music playlists, incoming text messages and podcast highlights of Morning Joe simultaneously. It opens a world that didn’t exist for past generations and offers new and exciting ways to learn. But for precisely that reason – because I love the controlled chaos of my personalized media experience – I will also turn it off, pick up a book and retreat to the park for an afternoon. Find a balanced regimen and stick to it. Creativity and inspiration tend to strike in moments of complete solitude or in spaces void of distraction – in the shower, for example.

We have a responsibility as intelligent, capable beings to resist and escape. If we fail to do so, we are bound to wake up one day to find ourselves in that brave new world envisaged by Huxley, shackled by our “infinite appetite for distraction” and paralyzed into inaction. As appealing as a culture of “feelies, orgy porgy and the centrifugal bumblepuppy” may sound, it is not the world to which we should aspire.

Unless, of course, we sell and market it as “iWorld.” Because that would just be too awesome. 

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European Parliament Digital Trends Survey

Along with Edelman recently publishing its annual Trust Barometer, Fleishman Hillard recently produced their own insightful report, the European Parliament Digital Trends Survey. Out here on the West Coast, we may not be awfully concerned about how politicians from Lithuania or Finland use social media to reach out to their constituents. So let’s remind ourselves that these new tools – while not possessing magical powers – provide a massive opportunity for any government to communicate with previously invisible or overlooked publics.

For years, we have bemoaned the power of the media to tell us what news to pay attention to and how we should feel about it. Alas, the time has come to shift that power back to the people. Finally, the common folk have an opportunity to be heard by their leaders. They can talk to us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and personal blogs. In return, we can comment back and have a meaningful discussion with our leaders and fellow Web 2.0 users. The possibilities are endless!

Which is exactly why a whole 14.9 percent of members of the European Union (MEPs) believe that “engaging people through  dialogue” is the greatest benefit of personal blogs!

Wait, what?

Isn’t that the entire point of social media? Apparently not, according to those EU members who were surveyed here. Instead, 73.1 percent of them concluded that the greatest benefit was “expressing my views directly to constituents.” Let’s go ahead and examine the key words here:

The greatest benefit of this social media tool is to express my views directly to constituents.

Something is terribly wrong here. J.E. Grunig reached the conclusion years ago that the most effective way to build a healthy relationship is through two-way symmetrical communication. Social media tools embody this idea and seek to expand upon it by allowing conversations between previously disconnected individuals and organizations.

It’s outstanding to see the comparison between 2009 and 2010, in which use of social media networks among MEPs increased from 33 percent to 69 percent. Considering the fact that nearly half of the respondents surveyed were between ages 46 and 65, this increase is even more impressive. Yet as future politicians and policymakers seek to delve into the social media realm, they must embrace its power as a  facilitator of dialogue rather than as a broadcast medium. I suppose that will be the job of those 18- to 30-year-olds who only make up 24 percent of the current survey demographic.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. After all, we’re only kids. What do we know?

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